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Shostakovich & Tchaikovsky: Mayu Kishima, violin, London Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor, Barbican, 2 June, 2005 (TJH)

Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77,
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

In the context of a meaty, all-Russian programme, a slender 19-year-old Japanese violinist seems somehow out of place. There are few violinists who can convincingly bring off Shostakovich’s First Concerto – one of the most technically and emotionally demanding works in the repertory – and of those who can, almost all originate from the former Soviet Union. Mayu Kishima, making her debut with the London Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night, certainly didn’t look the part as she walked on stage: her tiny frame was dwarfed even by the increasingly diminutive Mstislav Rostropovich, which – if you’ll pardon the pun – is no small feat.

But oh how appearances can deceive. Though her opening phrases were a little uncertain, with a few minor flaws in intonation, it took only a couple of minutes to warm up and establish a commanding presence that didn’t let up until the final bars some forty minutes later. In the first movement, Kishima’s playing floated effortlessly above the muted LSO strings, carrying her lonely and often unaccompanied line through the darkness of Shostakovich’s writing; the high final note was held with the strength and certainty of someone truly involved in the music. In the Scherzo, something of a deranged and menacing cartoon, Kishima projected with great clarity and astonishing accuracy, meeting and exceeding the score’s demands with aplomb. Her playing in the ensuing Passacaglia was once again suffused with a maturity beyond her years, growing in intensity as she ascended the heights of her top string.

But it was her cadenza that most impressed. Shostakovich wrote a huge cadenza – around five minutes long and pretty much a complete movement in its own right – and here Kishima proved herself a musician worthy of the great Rostropovich’s avuncular patronage. Her playing was immaculate, every detail vividly wrought, with a real sense of urgency as she rushed inevitably up the fingerboard towards the onslaught of the finale. There was some serious bite to her playing here, but she knew when to back off and let the music breathe – a trait not always apparent in Rostropovich’s conducting, which was comparatively unfocused. But the finale wrapped everything up very satisfyingly indeed, and Kishima received a huge round of well-deserved applause – one of many to come, I think.

After the interval, Rostropovich returned to the podium to conduct Tchaikovksy’s Fourth Symphony. Though his conducting was certainly a lot more astute in the second half than it had been in the concerto, it was a somewhat uneven performance that – though it had some terrific moments – was ultimately rather disappointing. Like Kishima, it took Rostropovich a little while to warm up, and despite some marvellous playing from the LSO brass, it was only at the onset of the development section that the first movement really took off. After the “Fate” motif made its first rude interruption, things started to get rather exciting and the rest of the movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest achievements, had a high-octane grandiosity that never felt forced or overly Romantic. The two inner movements – either of which could have come straight out of one of Tchaikovsky’s ballets – had heaps of character, especially the feather-light Pizzicato Scherzo. The Andante was perhaps a little fast to be truly expressive, but there was some gorgeous string playing and a few memorable contributions from Robert Bourton’s dusky-toned bassoon. The finale was a bit of a let-down, however: though brilliantly played, especially when it came to all those unison semiquavers scales, it nonetheless felt rather hollow, a series of noisy gestures which signified very little besides some juicy overtime pay for the cymbal player. Though there is no denying that Rostropovich is a great musician, he failed on this occasion to give Tchaikovsky’s symphonic argument much in the way of shape; it was therefore even less surprising that the evening belonged, very firmly, to that slender 19-year-old Japanese violinist.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)