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S & H Concert Review

Shostakovich, Lynn Harrell (cello), London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, Barbican Hall, 16th November 2002 (CC)


Making up the penultimate concert in the LSO's 'Last Works' series, this event brought a rare opportunity to hear Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto, Op. 126, live. Premiered in 1966 by its dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, this work has never gained the popularity of the First Concerto. True, it poses many challenges to the listener, but repeated hearing reveals a piece of the utmost depth. Standing on the threshold of the composer's late period, its elliptical language continues to fascinate to this day.

If cellist Lynn Harrell has previously given the impression of being a technician without depth, this performance went a long way towards dispelling this reputation. The opening (for solo ‘cello) was rich, resonant and imbued with feeling: it set the tone for the entire interpretation. The first movement (Largo) is imposing in its scope, moving inexorably onwards. The cadenza was particularly impressive, the dead and insistent beat of the bass drum (reminiscent of Mahler's Tenth Symphony) ominous. Tilson Thomas' ability to delineate Shostakovich's scoring came into its own in the second movement (Allegretto), which is based on a street song from Odessa (the programme note does not identify it: 'Bubliki, kupitye bubliki', or 'Bubliki, buy my bubliki', bubliki being a type of bread roll akin to a bagel). The horn fanfares which lead in to the finale were accurate, but they could have carried with them an element of the outrageous (the BBC Symphony Orchestra's horns on Rostropovich's performance on BBC Legends BBCL4073-2 capture this par excellence). The recurring cadential figure for ‘cello (which stands out for its obvious backwards glance at a bygone era) could also have been more lovingly projected. Nevertheless, this performance represented a major achievement and the ovation was justly deserved.

The fact that Harrell encored at all came as a surprise after the intensity of feelings the Second Concerto emanates. That it was Chopin's Nocturne in E flat, Op. 9 No. 2, arranged for solo ‘cello completed the shock, representing a retreat into a suddenly cosy world.

It was interesting to hear Tilson Thomas' interpretation of the elusive Fifteenth Symphony for a second time (see the review of the first concert on this site). For the performance on November 6th, the reviewing tickets were on the violin side; on this occasion, they were nearer the ‘cellos and double basses. It did in fact make quite a difference, the whole composition seeming more grounded and earthy. Minor differences apart (the opening was messier this time round, for example), the general impression was that the LSO had moved closer to the heart of this music. Solos for ‘cello and violin were impressive, as was the solo trombone; brass chorales were expertly balanced and the climax of the finale was fittingly awe-inspiring. Microphones were present for both performances of this Symphony and it is to be hoped this will represent a further release in the LSO Live series.

Colin Clarke

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