LSO Slava

Ruslan and Ludmilla – Overture
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.63
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 3 November, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Once again, the combination of the LSO on top form, and Rostropovich as inspirational as ever, made for highly memorable, and thoroughly rewarding, music-making.

‘Patience’ seemed to be the conductor’s watchword for this concert, since Rostropovich adopted steady tempos, even in Glinka’s overture, which is invariably taken at such a lick that notes and subtlety are thrown out of the window; here, Rostropvich revealed more detail and expression in this music than is often the case. But the comparatively measured pacing did not mean any lack of brilliance. On the contrary, the fact that details of instrumentation were able to register properly made this appear a much more interesting and inventive piece than when it is tossed off as a mere pot-boiler. Felicities of wind scoring were apparent, dynamics and phrasing justly attended to, and the violas’ and cellos’ delivery of the cantabile second subject was simply gorgeous under Rostropovich’s affectionate direction.

Nikolaj Znaider was the soloist in what proved to be a rather amiable reading of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, written around the time when the composer was planning his permanent return to Russia. Are there ambiguities latent – or, indeed, evident – in this score? Perhaps. But Znaider and Rostropovich appeared to have elected to take things at ‘face value’ and this was unquestionably a fine interpretation even if, ultimately, there can be more bite in the music than in this performance.

The opening, unaccompanied violin melody, was most expressively played and, thereafter, the contrasts between lyricism and energy were well-realised. Though Znaider’s interaction with the orchestra – the woodwind especially – was selfless and appropriate, I was surprised to find his tone rather one-dimensional and somewhat small at various points. One felt a want of sheer magnetism and projection, although Znaider’s musical integrity was never in doubt.

With its triadic harmony and triplet-like rhythms accompanying a limpid melodic line, I was reminded, at the outset of the second movement, of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel. Certainly, soloist and orchestra evoked a similar sense of stillness that was compelling though, later on, in the central Allegretto section, one could sense Znaider wanting to press ahead rather more than did Rostropovich. The finale, with its Spanish-tinged inflections, can – and perhaps should – be a degree more fiery, but the rhythmic pointing was superb, and the hint of laconic wit engaging.

Like his commanding performance of the Fifth Symphony with the LSO in July, Rostropovich’s reading of Shostakovich’s Eighth was authoritative, impressive and deeply moving.

The music seemed soaked with despair as soon as the first movement got underway, with weighty strings a portent of further tragedy still to come. When the first violins entered, their expressionless sound – no vibrato was employed – was quite chilling, and whilst the pacing was slow, the sense of striving nevertheless prevailed. At the start of the Allegro non troppo, Rostropovich lengthened the rest which separates this section from that which preceded it. I did not altogether care for this, though it was convincingly done in its own terms. When the power of the full orchestra finally erupted, with no less than two additional side drums, it was a frightening moment, and the desolation of the subsequent cor anglais solo was infinitely poignant.

The two central faster movements proved to be no light diversion. Indeed, with the piquant piccolo, partnered by an equally mischievous E-flat clarinet, the second movement was imbued with a sense of the sinister; Shostakovich’s mocking manner sounding more than usually malevolent.

In the third movement, this performance was notable for the persistent crotchets being played rather more legato than is the norm. Thus, the music seemed even heavier and darker than is customary. The trio, with its ‘oom-pah’ brass, shrieking wind and laughing strings gave no relief to the overall mood of pessimism. Battering timpani led to a cry of pain at the start of the fourth movement, the subsequent passacaglia wearily taking up the tread again. Momentary flecks of light shone courtesy of clarinets, whilst the purring flutter-tonguing from flutes (not immaculately executed) was a reminder that this symphony inhabits a psychological – if not physical – environment which might be aptly described as ‘Siberian’.

The emergence of the major tonality at the beginning of the finale found the first bassoon hopefully intimating that ‘better things’ might be possible, and there was a remarkable suggestion of the composer ‘pulling himself together’, perhaps wearing an artificial smile. Shostakovich’s comment that this symphony is “… on the whole an optimistic, life-affirming work” and that “… the fifth movement contains bright, pastoral music with various kinds of dance elements interwoven with folk motifs” seems almost ludicrous in the face of music that, ultimately, suggests profound and disturbing sadness. Rarely can the tonality of C major seem so comfortless as it does at the close of this symphony.

As was the case with the Fifth Symphony, this performance (and the repeat the following night) was being recorded for LSO Live. Some judicious editing will be necessary to eliminate the shockingly bronchial audience – which was active both during and between movements. But these distractions could not detract from the strength of the performance. Unsurprisingly, Rostropovich looked quite drained at its conclusion.

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