LSO/Gergiev at the Barbican (4 stars)

Leonidas Kavakos
The Times (UK)

By Hilary Finch

To all those who have been affected by recent events in Japan: that was the dedication of this London Symphony Orchestra concert. And it was as though the music had been specially chosen rather than planned, as it was, months in advance: the centrepiece was Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, a musical monument to struggle, stoicism and perennial human lamentation.

Not since David Oistrakh, the work’s dedicatee, has there been a more passionately committed and entirely accomplished performer for this piece than Leonidas Kavakos, who was the soloist here. The notoriously difficult solo cadenza that leads into the finale was played with a perfectionism of technique and understanding, which gave an extraordinary beauty to each poised note, and a sense of searing self-laceration as the bow dug into the composer’s own musical signature — the famous DSCH motif that had shaped the Scherzo’s own nightmare.

No wonder Oistrakh had pleaded with Shostakovich to give him a break at the start of the finale. But not for long. Played with the music coursing through his entire body, and at one with the body of the orchestra, Kavakos’s performance led to a rapid and spontaneous standing ovation, with the LSO’s leader shaking his head in admiring disbelief.

The conductor, by the way, was Valery Gergiev. And this performance was framed by two of his current obsessions. Gergiev recently began his year-long survey of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, and in this performance of the Second he brought an almost violent energy and white heat to the Ukrainian themes that pulse through its progress.

Gergiev is also championing the music of his compatriot Rodion Shchedrin. The composer was present to hear a piece specially composed for the LSO, and premiered by them at the 2009 Vilnius Festival. The 11-minute Lithuanian Saga, a Symphonic Fresco for Orchestra celebrates with shrill, whistling dissonances of terror and triumph the Lithuanian victory in 1410 over the Teutons. With its strange, sliding woodwind threnodies and chromatic timpani writing, the LSO and Gergiev gave the work a performance of compelling strength.