Slava’s Shostakovich

Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Vadim Repin (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 7 July, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The orchestral opening of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was most elegantly phrased, scrupulous in ensemble and carefully prepared – characteristics that were evident throughout this concert. One might reasonably add that these are reflections of ‘Slava’ Rostropovich’s dedicated musicianship, since his deep knowledge of the scores and his love for the music clearly inspired the LSO.

Vadim Repin gave a scrupulous reading of the solo part, matching the orchestra’s phrasing – something which does not always occur – yet he seemed to be ‘standing back’ from full engagement with the music. The first movement was given at a steady pace, which allowed details in both solo and accompaniment to register, and there was a welcome feeling of exploring the purely musical aspects of the concerto rather than putting on a show.

But most concertos also need a touch of élan from the soloist and this was lacking. In many respects the LSO and Rostropovich went a good way to compensate – orchestral tuttis were powerful, without being overwhelming, and solo woodwind lines (especially in the Canzonetta) were shaped with care. The ruminations of this movement were perhaps allowed to meander a little too much, but the finale burst in most dramatically and, indeed, the performance seemed to come to life at this point; there was plenty of spirit and interplay, and a real rush of excitement towards the close.

After the interval, the LSO’s Managing Director, Clive Gillinson was presented with the Sir Charles Groves Prize – given for outstanding contributions to British music. In his acceptance speech, Gillinson paid tribute to the orchestra, and those artists who work with it.

There followed an extraordinarily authoritative performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony which, far from taking the much-quoted (and sometimes misquoted) line of the work being “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism,” instead suggested Shostakovich’s defiance in the face of the criticisms being heaped upon him. For this was a remarkably angry performance, with few moments of repose; and those that there were conveyed as inwardly held despair and world-weary resignation.

The performance took a little while to settle; one can imagine the opening string paragraph being more forcefully articulated, but the sense of loss – even tragedy – soon made itself felt in the limpid violin lines which were not emoted over, but allowed to ‘speak’ naturally and all the more poignantly for it.

Tension was felt as the tempo quickened, and Rostropovich seemed anxious to press forward; not in an impetuous way, but to be constantly moving on to the next climax, each of which was indeed powerful. But it was gratifying to hear strength without stridency. Even in full cry, with high trumpets and dominating percussion, the tone of the orchestra – the brass especially – never became coarse as can occur in this hall with this orchestra. The lessening of anguish towards the end of the first movement was most movingly achieved, and the unexpected first hearing of the celesta seemed, on this occasion, quite chilling.

The second movement was absolutely stunning. No ‘light relief’ in this scherzo, but a truly grim experience. Any occasional smiles were through gritted teeth. The solo violin – often played in a puckish manner – was a malicious goblin, and accented winds and brass verged on the violent. Rostropovich continues to engage in the small quirk of slowing down during the 4/4 bars to interrupt the basic 3/4 pulse. It is not in the score, and I’m not sure what authority it has, but it was realised impeccably and served to point up the re-statements of the main theme that seemed to grow in malevolent intensity on each occasion.

Intensity of another sort was present throughout the slow movement. This music seemed saturated with grief, but not of a sentimental kind. For all the richness of the divided string writing, which some conductors take as a cue for swooning, Rostropovich was keen to point up the anguished harmonic writing which, in this movement, rarely strays from the minor. The final major cadence was by no means a moment of relief – on the contrary, it was an uneasy conclusion to this troubled movement. In one or two places, a pedant would note that Rostropovich anticipated some crescendos and allowed certain phrases to be played too loudly, but the conviction of the whole rendered minutiae of this kind insignificant.

The finale followed without a pause, and its defiant ‘call to arms’ once again suggested Shostakovich in fighting mood. Passages of calm felt uncomfortable, and the conclusion was built inexorably to a shattering climax. Brass and percussion were not allowed to ride roughshod, but the repeated D major chords, buttressed by cymbals, made it clear that there was no victory for anyone here. Given his personal friendship with the composer and direct experience of the kind of repression and persecution Shostakovich stoically endured, goodness knows what must go through Rostropovich’s mind when conducting this music.

This was a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony which brushed away any sense of familiarity, and it emerged as a distinctly uncomfortable, disturbing work and, on this occasion, an overwhelming experience.

  • Concert repeated on 8 July and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3
  • LSO

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