First Night: Bear hugs and balalaikas

Mstislav Rostropovich LSO Pushkin Memorial Concert The Barbican, London

MSTISLAV ROSTROPOVICH, the conductor-cellist, loves Pushkin. When I first met him he was bidding over the telephone for a famous painting of the great Russian writer, and when he clinched the deal, he jumped up and gave me a bear hug.

But that's Rostropovich for you, and at last night's London Symphony Orchestra Pushkin Memorial Concert, at the Barbican, there were hugs all round when the brilliant young Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov dispatched the final flourish of Rodion Shchedrin's Concerto Cantabile for violin and strings. Shchedrin is head of the Russian Federation of the Union of Composers and has an opera, Lolita, to his name. His concerto, which Vengerov played by heart with the utmost intensity, shares its material between the soloist and the strings, echoing, arguing or blending in an ecstatic monologue. Vengerov indulged every imaginable violinistic trick; his tone was ravishing, his fevered expression evidence of total involvement.

Shchedrin was there to share the accolades. It must have been like a dream come true, hearing one of his latest works played with such staggering virtuosity. And there was more. After the concerto, Vengerov reappeared, stole a chair from the second violins, sat himself down, held his violin like a guitar and proceeded to dazzle us with a plucked show piece called Balalaika, also by Shchedrin. His playing beggared description.

The concert had opened with Tchaikovsky's imperious Polanaise from Eugene Onegin. Next came a couple of Pushkin waltzes by Prokofiev, like cameo flashbacks to the great ballets Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella.

The evening ended with that most emotive of Tchaikovsky symphonies, the fifth.Tchaikovsky suggests that this music should be played with plenty of freedom and Rostropovich took him at his word. The tempo increased with the heat; the terrible moments where the brass cries a fateful return of the symphony's opening theme were high in shock value. This was big, brazen Tchaikovsky, unstinting in its commitment and lovably over the top. The LSO held the plot with obvious dedication.

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