Rostropovich conducts Shostakovich – 19th March

Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.107
Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103 ’The Year 1905’

Denis Shapovalov (cello)
London Symphony Orchestraconducted by Mstislav Rostropovich

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 March, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

It was inevitable that, as part of his 75th birthday celebrations with the LSO, Rostropovich would devote a concert to the music of Shostakovich, with whom he enjoyed a close artistic association over some two decades. Both works date from the late 1950s, a time of domestic upheaval for the composer – and a period when his reputation in the West was assured at a public if not always critical level.

Both of Shostakovich’s cello concertos were written for Rostropovich, the First entering the repertoire right from its Leningrad premiere in 1959. Appropriate that its first exponent should now be taking up the baton with a cellist of the younger generation. Unfortunately Denis Shapovalov’s playing left a good deal to be desired. The main drawback was the wiry, unfocused tone of his upper register, blunting the acerbic elegance of expression in the outer movements, where passagework oftensounded forced and constrained.

The second movement was better, with a well-paced ascent to the climax and crepuscular harmonics near the close hauntingly conveyed. The cadenza too began well, though Shapovalov rather rushed his fences as momentum took off, smudging the hair-raising lead-in to the ’Finale’. Rostropovich’s conductingwas fully dependable in a work whose orchestral part he must know as well as its solo contribution, but the outcome was an effortful interpretation of only intermittent conviction.

Written in 1957, ostensibly in celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution, the Eleventh Symphony also enjoyed success in its early years, only to fall from favour in the West as the stock of Shostakovich’s more overtly abstract symphonies began to rise. In recent years, its status as a tacit condemnation of the USSR’s role in the 1956 ’Hungarian Uprising’ has gained favour in revisionist circles, though thecomposer’s son Maxim is surely nearer the mark when he states that the work is not about “… this war or that revolution, but about war and revolution in general, the state of mind and emotion, not facts.”

Although the work is in no sense a score in search of a film, the musical process evolves through the cumulative association of themes, often of a popular or traditional origin, rather than the organic development of motifs. It is this aspect that Rostropovich’s long-breathed (70-minute) interpretationconveys most impressively. The sense of latent menace in the sombre opening movement was palpable, while the second movement – in which a feeling of agitation is tangibly created and destroyed – gained considerably from being taken at a steady and consistent pulse.

Likewise its ’In memoriam’ successor, the funereal strains sounding evocative on muted violas, and building inexorably, that albeit a pre-emptive acceleration into the movement’s climax unsettled this. The brazen call-to-arms of the ’Finale’ was given its head, though not without the cor anglais’s lament – plangently realised by Christine Pendrill – being other than the emotional core of the whole work, and the bell-dominated furore andtonal equivocation of the final onslaught a mirror of the symphony’s overall ambivalence.

Rostropovich rightly remained hand aloft while the clangour died down having inspired the LSO to a gripping account of a work whose real worth in the context of Shostakovich’s output has only latterly being acknowledged.

The standing ovation may have been more in response to the conductor than the music, but there can no doubt that Rostropovich lived every bar as though 1905 and 1957 were the present. Which is surely the point that this symphony is intent on making.

  • Rostropovich conducts Britten this Sunday, 24 March, with the LSO – An American Overture, Violin Concerto (Maxim Vengerov), Les Illuminations and Four Sea Interludes
  • Box Office: 020 7628 2326

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