Thursday night the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Vladimir Jurowski, presented Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Arabella Steinbacher as soloist, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4. One program; two very different works; there was something for everybody in this concert.
Arabella Steinbacher took the stage before reduced orchestral forces to perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E-Minor, op. 64. What Steven Ledbetter’s program note does not say is that this is the the more commonly heard revised version of that work, and not the “original” version which Daniel Hope has recently been championing. So the bar is set quite high for any performance, since this concerto – highly innovative at the time of composition for the first movement cadenza completing the development and starting the recapitulation, the first and second movements linked by a sustained note on bassoon, the third movement nipping at the heels of the second – is now a fixture on the world’s concert stages (not to mention a standard work studied in every violin studio). Ms. Steinbacher gave an accomplished and considered reading of this work, with good musical tone throughout. She announced the opening theme of the Allegro molto appassionato in a brighter color than the orchestra (who were perhaps already in the spirit of the Shostakovich to follow). The concluding presto in that movement was taken at a tempo too fast to project cleanly in Symphony Hall — at least, that is what I heard seated in the first balcony center. The second movement Andante was full of much tenderness. The third movement Allegretto ma non troppo opened with the solo violin quiet, almost dainty, then growing into prominence — a lovely musical idea that creates growth out of repetition and well serves the playful, Scherzo-like qualities of this movement. Whether because of issues of balance or projection, I could not hear this phrasing as clearly as I would have liked; similarly some g-string passages in the first movement were quite covered and the Andante sounded a bit thin. I do hope with more time in the space of Symphony Hall these issues get resolved so Ms. Steinbacher can be heard and fully appreciated on her own merits.
Intermission gave the staff of Symphony Hall time to crowd the stage with the chairs and music stands required for the immense orchestration (over a hundred musicians) of Shostakovich, Symphony no. 4. Composed in 1935 – 36, this work was not premiered until 1961 and, based on comments overheard, is one not widely known to local audiences. The work in performance runs over an hour and represents something of a compendium of musical ideas near and dear to Dmitri Shostakovich. I heard many points of contact between this work and several others of his compositions. This symphony contains a wealth of orchestral color, intriguing orchestration, and a panoply of musical ideas. Jurowski was a fleet and able conductor, marshaling the extended forces into a coherent and unified ensemble, giving clear direction, setting and holding well-chosen tempi, and changing the character of the playing as required to capture the many facets of this protean work. The half-hour long first movement, Allegretto poco moderato, opens with a theme announced on the xylophone before the low strings begin a rhythmic cell which carries the work forward. As this movement unfolds, a lengthy dance through and around traditional sonata form, there are opportunities for all instruments of the orchestra to shine. This work either embraces the irreconcilable contradictions of life (as per Marina Sabinina), or reflects 1930s Soviet “gigantomania.” In musical terms, there is a combination of rhythmic propulsion and tender lyricism, with extensive use of ostinato and fugato passages. The size of the orchestra provides great density and volume of sound. Vladimir Jurowski kept score with Shostakovich throughout this lengthy exploration, and was as effective during the fortissimo and presto passages as at the morendo ending of this movement. The Moderato con moto, a smaller and seemingly more intimate (although that term will always be relative in relation to this symphony) movement, brings the violas to the fore and whirls around dance-like music. The Largo, indebted to Mahler, is a dirge grounded on a tritone in the timpani; the effect of sadness and unease were very effectively conveyed by the forces assembled. That leads directly into the concluding Allegro which combines more popularly-phrased musical ideas with phrases that have gone before in this mammoth symphony. The celesta quietly brought the composition to a close – a haunting, ethereal climax to this massive work.
The applause was lengthy and sustained; it was also well-deserved. The BSO was in fine fettle for this work. I do wish the program had named the extended forces joining the core of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for this performance. There is no disgrace in acknowledging the talent and forces assembled which are decidedly beyond the normal scope of a symphony orchestra (four flutes, four oboes, divisi timpani, ten or more contra-basses). Not to list them in the program seems churlish in light of such fine and spirited music-making.
As for Vladimir Jurowski, this was his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He comes to Boston with impressive credentials and has conducted an impressive roster of orchestras throughout the world. Any conductor appearing on the podium in Boston must see this as a potential job interview, given the current situation. I am pleased with what I saw and heard from Mr. Jurowski; more importantly, the musicians seemed pleased and eager to work with him. I wonder if we will see more of Vladimir Jurowski in Boston in the near future.