The entire classical music world was dazed earlier in the year, when it was announced that Valery Gergiev was to become the next Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. For a while, people had been wondering what was going to happen when Sir Colin Davis stepped down, and so well-loved and magical a musician seemed impossible to replace. But the orchestra has made the biggest possible coup by the appointment, which is without doubt the most significant since Simon Rattle's departure for the Berlin Phil.
This concert was both Gergiev's first as Principal Conductor Designate and the beginning of his year-long cycle of the complete Shostakovich symphonies (in his centenary year) with several leading orchestras at the Barbican. If this performance of the Eighth Symphony is anything to go by, the mini-festival will be every bit as successful as it looks on paper.
For this rendition was at once vital and technically refined, emotional and intellectual. At his best Gergiev is both in complete control and a unique source of inspiration, and those qualities were in abundance here.
Shostakovich's Eighth is one of his lesser-known yet most heart-rending works. Written in only ten weeks during 1943, it was condemned after its early performances in Moscow and Leningrad for failing to capture the supposed joy of the Russian people after withstanding the Nazis in Stalingrad and the siege of Leningrad.
In a performance as persuasive as this by Gergiev and the LSO, it seems a more open-eyed mourning for the Russian dead, of whom there were 27 million in the Second World War. Nobody could suggest the work's inferiority to the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies after hearing this stirring interpretation, nor indeed its affinity to the melancholy of those earlier and more popular symphonic slabs.
The first movement was impressively focussed, with an unusual clarity about the attack of the string sections in the opening dotted rhythms. The long lines of the violin theme which dominates the opening pages were admirably fluent, whilst the build-up to the first climax was almost shocking, however well one thought one knew the work. The haunting cor anglais solo by Christine Pendrill then responded well to the composer's thinning of the texture, a striking but characteristic gesture throughout this work.
I've always loved the second movement, a ghoulish march with high wind instruments piercing through the sound in an almost Mahlerian way, and here it was refreshingly brisk. The trumpet solo in the third movement was shatteringly brilliant, whilst the fourth movement's generally understated character was conducted with such concentration that it became possibly the most interesting section. And Gergiev's understanding of the finale - extraversion gradually reduced to nothing - was rewarded by thirty seconds of silence before the audience dared applaud.
The first item in the programme was a bit of an oddity - Shostakovich's orchestration of Schumann's Cello Concerto. Schumann's score was perceived to be lacking in clarity, which prompted the later composer's rearrangement of the work for Rostropovich in 1963. I can't help but think that Schumann knew what he was doing, and I have never had a problem with the original scoring; Shostakovich's version congeals many of the textures. Yet the performance was rewarding - the young cellist Johannes Moser makes up in virtuosity for what he lacks in depth and interpretative personality, and Gergiev and the LSO provided sympathetic accompaniment.
The rest of the Shostakovich series is bound to be mesmeric, and the few remaining tickets for the Vienna Phil and Rotterdam Phil concerts in 2006 should be snapped up whilst there's still a chance.
BUY Shostakovich - Eighth Symphony: LSO/Rostopovich