LSO/Rostropovich Vengerov Shostakovich

Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77
Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93

Maxim Vengerov (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 24 January, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Unambiguously great music played with indisputable authority and commitment, though whether the event should be considered axiomatically ‘authentic’ is another matter. When renditions by Shostakovich’s closest friends, colleagues and relatives differ so radically one from another, perhaps the only meaningful authenticity available to us is the kind that works on the night. Rostropovich’s inspirational, heroically ‘politicised’ way with this music is always best experienced live: he is capable of eliciting readings of great emotional clout but they can sound heavy-handed if you’re not in the mood. (And I wasn’t. Or at least I was relieved that this account of the main work was not among those being captured for LSO Live.)

With the ‘wunderkind’ from Novosibirsk it can be the other way round: his self-confident platform presence and fondness for irrelevant and trivialising encores can be off-putting to serious-minded listeners. The urge was resisted on this occasion. It is more than ten years since Vengerov, now turned thirty, first appeared with the same conductor and orchestra in a sensational Barbican performance of this very concerto. It remains among the pieces he does best in an interpretation that hasn’t changed much, his more sluggish tempo for the second movement being less marked than has sometimes been the case. As ever the direction lends weight rather than linear clarity to orchestral writing probably intended to sound lighter. Rostropovich goes for an extraordinarily abrasive effect at the outset of the slow third movement, deliberately disrupting the profile of the ‘Passacaglia’, whereas Vengerov’s contribution combines dynamic variety with spot-on intonation, maximal emotional clout and seamless continuity. The familiar throbbing intensity, well nigh suffocating in the wrong kind or repertoire, is perfectly apposite here and you scarcely noticed Rostropovich’s messy launch of the finale given the boundless technical assurance of the soloist. Vengerov can still fine-down his tone to the barest whisper; nor is he afraid to make a scorching, ugly sound. This music was written for Oistrakh but we are made to think otherwise for the duration. Even the coughers fell silent.

The Tenth is another of the works in the Shostakovich oeuvre that needs no self-justifying biographical exegesis. This has not stopped commentators insisting that its second movement is a portrait of Stalin, something Rostropovich himself thinks unlikely. We now know that the horn call in the third movement encodes a reference not to “Das Lied von der Erde” or to the name of the conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky but to one of the composer’s amours. Does it matter? It can be argued that the symphony as a whole remains impervious to this kind of reductive analysis. It has always been a piece about the survival of the individual against the odds while also celebrating the survival, reassertion and renewal of an older, Beethovenian tradition of what some will choose to call ‘absolute music’.

Rostropovich is not perhaps the interpreter to emphasise the finer points in what is a curiously dour and downbeat account. The only observable variety in a very long opening movement comes when he dispenses with the baton or picks it up again. The piccolos in the coda sounded distinctly uncomfortable. A slew of somnolent audience members departed even before the scherzo, for me a notch too slow. In the third movement, the conductor ambushed the orchestra, abandoning the monolithic trudge to go for bigger and bolder contrasts. The usually excellent principal horn seemed out of sorts. The finale lacked joy, although whether this is a deliberate tactic or the consequence of limited stick technique and encroaching old age it is difficult to say.

For some listeners there will always be something moving about seeing this living legend front the LSO. The players oblige with their customary weight of tone in suitably oppressive shades of grey, only far too much of the music goes by at a dogged mezzo-forte with insufficient rhythmic definition. In short this tried and tested programme is a long haul. It’s repeated, should you be minded to queue for returns.

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