in: Reviews

March 11, 2013

Much Watched Conductor with LPO

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Juroski conducrs Vadim Repin and LPO (Robert Torres / Celebrity Series photo)

Vladimir Jurowski conducts Vadim Repin and LPO (Robert Torres/Celebrity Series photo)

Vladimir Jurowski has been “much-watched” as a candidate on the BSO’s short list of potential Music Directors. Indeed, Tony Fogg, the BSO’s Artistic Advisor was in Symphony Hall Friday, March 8th to witness the concert by The London Philharmonic Orchestra under. Jurowski’s direction.

The program was intriguingly diverse. The first half was given to the dour and daunting Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, op. 77, and it was brilliantly played by Vadim Repin. This dense and thorny work was written in the years immediately preceding Stalin’s death, but the composer had put the music away to await a more hospitable artistic climate. That climate seemed to have its beginning just after Stalin’s passing in 1953, so Shostakovich brought the Concerto out of storage and showed it to David Oistrakh, who suggested a few changes before he and Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic gave the music’s premiere on October 29, 1955 in the Orchestra’s namesake city.

Repin would seem an ideal violinist for this unusual four-movement concerto, betraying only a momentary intonation problem or two in the concerto’s opening. Otherwise, no hurdles of technique or interpretive decisions impeded his reading. His playing of the long and demanding cadenza, which joins the ending of the Concerto’s third movement Passacaglia with its Burlesca finale, was impressively secure and musically riveting. All in all, this was a performance of top-drawer status, with the LPO and Jurowski offering an involved and finely honed accompaniment

I mentioned earlier that this is an “unusual” concerto, and that characterization is not exclusively tied to its four-movement structure. The music, utterly bleak at its beginning and almost giddily rambunctious at its close, is a real journey from darkness to light, though the light achieved in the end harbors an almost artificial glare within its brilliance. I was reminded of two Shostakovich symphonies that follow similar paths – No. 6, a three-movement work with its lengthy and tragic Largo first movement followed by a seemingly light-hearted Scherzo and rollicking finale, and No. 10, written in the same year as the Violin Concerto. It too begins in a dark and brooding fashion and ends with a manic though somewhat strained Allegro. This pattern lends itself to speculation that it reflects the dark political situation in the Soviet Union at the time these pieces were written. I’ll not “go there,” but it IS interesting to find this pattern occurring frequently in this composer’s music.

While Repin’s playing was wonderful, I found Jurowski’s accompaniment equally compelling. My in-concert notes commended his expert marshaling of the first movement’s long, uninterrupted and singing violin line, his clear and readable conducting gestures, and the transparent and open orchestral textures he achieved even when the music was heavily and densely scored. His involvement and control were total and commanding, and the LPO’s playing involved and spot-on.

The concert’s second and final offering was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, op. 67. I need hardly mention that any conductor who programs this (some would say overly) familiar symphony really ought to bring a compelling illumination of this score to the audience lest the performance fall into a boring and all-too-familiar routine. Jurowski and his very talented orchestra more often than not achieved this goal. The playing was uniform and excellent, and the orchestra exhibited wind, brass, string and tympani playing of the highest and well-integrated order. In a welcome nod to period authenticity Jurowski opted to have early trumpets (Purcell called them “long trumpets”) and early-style timpani play along with the otherwise modern instruments. In a pre-concert interview Jurowski said that he would countenance the use of vibrato only in particular passages where its employment might be used as an emotional nuance. Otherwise, the string and wind playing would be largely vibrato-free. I found the results bracing and appropriate, and not at all artificial sounding.

In interpretation, Jurowski brought interesting and convincing ideas of phrasing and carefully honed shading of dynamics. His pace in all four movements was fleet and focused. I recall especially his felicitous treatment of the second movement’s beautiful cantabile melody, taking it as an uninterrupted long-arched phrase rather than the more commonly heard idea of dividing it into segments. The cello and bass sections were particularly brilliant and beautifully of one mind and sound in their rapid passagework at the center of the Scherzo movement. Jurowski’s planning and balancing of the extraordinary transition between the Scherzo and the Allegro finale was dramatic and effective, and that finale blazed forth in brilliant yet controlled glory. Throughout the symphony the playing of timpanist Simon Carrington was nuanced and convincingly impelling when asked for. Jurowski rightly recognized him during the ovation after the music’s conclusion.

It was a pleasure to hear this excellent orchestra in Symphony Hall, thanks to the Boston Celebrity Series, yet I could not help remembering that years ago Boston was graced by many more visits by the world’s great orchestras. While it’s gratifying to note that there are more excellent local orchestras playing at a very high level than was the case several years ago, it’s a shame that one needed to travel to New York this year to hear, for instance, the Vienna Philharmonic, The Berlin Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw, The Cleveland, the L.A. Philharmonic etc. etc. But thank you, Celebrity Series, for doing what you can in today’s expensive world.

So, what about Jurowski? Is he of the stuff the BSO is seeking? He was reportedly very impressive in his BSO guest appearances with the huge Shostakovich Symphony No. 4, though what I heard on-line of one of those wasn’t of the shattering impact of Rozhdesvensky’s several years ago. However, I was impressed by what I saw and heard on Friday. He is an intense and dramatic conductor, and his interpretations were well thought and expertly communicated to his players. His personal rapport with them was clearly evident. Whether he has the breadth and depth our BSO deserves isn’t yet clear. Having said that, this appearance with the London Philharmonic was a concert of deep appeal and excellent execution. I’d like to see more of Jurowski. What, for instance, would he bring to Debussy, Schoenberg, Haydn, Nielsen, Mozart, Mahler, Verdi?

The BSO Music Director drama continues…

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 34 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

7 Comments

  1. I’m very troubled by the snowballing “Jurowski for Music Director” comments that are coming from increasing quarters. I have had a completely open mind about Jurowski and frankly was expecting to be blown away by his two Boston performances in the last few months, based upon the unbelievable reviews I’ve read online over the years from London, Philadelphia, and other places. Having now heard two concerts that Jurowski conducted with two different orchestra, the BSO and LPO (or more properly, 1.5 concerts; see below), my strong impression is that Jurowski would definitely NOT be a wise choice to become the BSO’s new Music Director.

    We have heard two recent performances of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto #1 in the last few months, first with Baiba Skride/Andriss Nelsons and the BSO, and Repin/Jurowski. If you had asked me before either of these performances which I thought would be the better of the two, hands down my vote would have been Repin/Jurowski, for one reason only: the great Vadim Repin. I’ve heard many performances of his and have never been anything less than amazed every time. But Friday night’s Shostakovich performance was way off for him. Even Jeremy Eichler, the Globe critic, noted that it was a sub-par performance for Repin, and it was. It seemed to me like he was not involved in his playing for large chunks of it, like he was on automatic pilot. There was little mystery in his playing in the first movement, what felt like a lack of emotional involvement through large stretches of the performance, and it just felt like a total miss. Jurowski’s accompaniment was even worse. It was flat, lacking in dynamic control, came across as disengaged with the contents of the music, there never seemed to be a larger arc to the music, and to these ears, seemed to truly miss the spirit of the piece. Skride/Nelsons was much better, even if (to these ears) not a great performance. The two great performances I have hard in Boston/Tanglewood were Maxim Vengerov/Rostropovich, and Frank Peter Zimmerman (who I believe, but am not positive, was accompanied by Haitink). Compared to those, Repin/Jurowski were not even in the ballpark.

    Because my companion and I were so drained by the really poor performance of the Shostakovich, we left at intermission (something we don’t do often). It all seemed so “off”, and neither of us felt the need at that moment to hear another performance of Beethoven’s 5th. Based upon Jeremy Eichler’s review in the Globe, it sounds like we made the right call.

    It frustrates me that so many people have gushed over Jurowski’s performance of Shostakovich’s 4th with the BSO. What bothers me is that I believe that most of the people gushing over the performance don’t know the piece, or know it that well. I do. It’s an astonishing piece of music, and no one can deny that it’s truly an impact piece: even a bad performance is going to make a real impact, and a great performance is utterly devastating. The problem, it seems to me, is that many were impacted and attributed their response to Jurowski’s conducting, rather than the piece itself.

    Jurowski’s reading of the Shostakovich Symphony #4 (S4) to my ears was an average, forgettable performance of an unforgettable work. It suffered from many of the same defects we heard in the Shostakovich violin concerto: There was no overriding arch, it lived in the moment, it was emotionally stunted, and it didn’t feel like the performance was coming from inside the music. Here in Boston, five years ago, those of us who caught the concerts were lucky to hear a truly GREAT performance of the S4 from Sir Mark Elder conducting the BSO. Who would have ever thought that Elder, of all people, would bring us a S4 for the ages? But he did, and then some. My hair was standing on end from the performance and chills ran up and down my body. It was thrilling, chilling, upsetting, and everything it should have been, and more. And having heard both performances, Elder blew Jurowski out of the water. I’m sorry more people did not hear Elder’s truly great performance (Mr. Erlich attributes this performance to Rozhdestvensky, but it was actually Elder). In comparison, Jurowski’s was in the minor leagues.

    I’m very aware of the fact that n=2 is not truly a sufficient dataset to measure anyone’s capabilities. Jurowski may deserve every bit of the press he has received over the years, and I was simply unlucky enough to hear two not very good concerts. Or maybe Jurowski is a brilliant conductor who just does most things really well except for Shostakovich. Whatever the case, all I can say is that it greatly troubles me that so many people are waxing eloquent about what a great fit Jurowski would be for Boston. Based on what I’ve heard in two recent concerts, I shudder at the thought.

    On the other hand, I thought that Andris Nelsons’ January concert was magnificent. But one great concert does not a new music director make. I’d love to hear Nelsons conduct a lot more. Certainly he got great reviews last summer at Tanglewood for his Brahms 2. And I’m looking forward to hearing more of Daniele Gatti. We enjoyed the Verdi Requiem in January (although I don’t know the piece that well), and a number of years ago, he gave a so-over-the-top performance of Brahms’ 4th symphony that I’ve never forgotten. But I do remember another concert of his was forgettable (so much so that I can’t even remember the program). But I am looking forward to his Wagner concert in March. I enjoyed his recent Met performance of Parsifal which I saw live in HD in a movie theater, although I’m not sure if it was a “great” performance as others have called it. But Gatti seems like a serious musician and I don’t think he would be a bad choice for the BSO, although I’m not yet convinced he is the right choice. I want to hear more of Nelsons.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 12, 2013 at 7:02 am

  2. Mogulmeister – thanks for your post. I’m sorry to have missed Elder’s performances of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 4. The Boston Symphony Orchestra/Rozhdesvensky performances of this symphony – two of which I did attend – were March 30, 31, April 1 and 4 1978. The performances were unforgettable. And, as I mentioned, though I have only heard the BSO/Jurowski broadcast performance on-line, it just doesn’t come close to the overwhelming impact of the BSO/Rozhdesvensky performances. My off-air recording of the BSO/Rozhdesvensky performance is a potent reminder of this. Finally, I am emphatically not part of the chorus calling for Jurowski to become the next BSO Music Director. I was simply observing the ongoing drumbeat for same.

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — March 12, 2013 at 10:27 am

  3. Hi John,

    Thanks for your comments, and my apology for my error. That Rozhdestvensky concert you reference was before my time, I’m afraid, but boy would I love to hear a recording of it. I don’t doubt it was special, because Rozhdestvensky gave more than a few very special concerts over the years that he visited Boston and I managed to hear him. He always impressed me as the real deal, and was someone who probably deserved more recognition locally than he received. I will never forget his performance of Suk’s “A Summer’s Tale,” which shockingly, he gave the American premiere of with the BSO. I never heard a routine or bad Rozhdestvensky concert, and some were remarkable. I was really saddened when he had his tiff with the BSO and left Boston, likely never to return. It seems to me that was a real loss for us all. And to be honest with you, while I think Rozhdestvensky greatly over-reacted, he was not wrong either, although it was probably an oversight on the BSO’s part rather than an intentional statement. I’m sure the BSO has their hands full with a number of divas they have to deal with, but they probably could have handled the situation with more sensitivity than they did. But who knows what happened that none of us are privy to? It’s a shame.

    And you are correct, you are not a part of the chorus shouting “Jurowski! Jurowski!”. He may be a very good conductor for all I know. But based on 1.5 concerts I’ve heard in Boston, he seemed to “miss” the essence of the works by not a small distance. The same can not be said for other “names” that are being considered.

    Do you have any thoughts on who should be the next MD of the BSO?

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 12, 2013 at 12:09 pm

  4. As with Mogulmeister, I had a surprising reaction to Friday night’s concert: it left me largely unmoved and wondering what all the fuss was about. With the sound of Skride/Nelsons still fresh in memory, I too thought Repin was not playing at his usual high level, nor was the LPO quite as distinctive and masterly as the BSO under Nelsons. That concert did make me want to hear a great deal more of Nelsons, and I couldn’t help imagining what a terrific match his temperament might be with this orchestra, which played superbly. In fact, good as they were under Dutoit the week before, it sounded like a different orchestra – more rhythmically flexible, nuanced, transparent (I never thought I’d want to hear the Tchaikovsky 5th again, either, but I found that performance spellbinding and revelatory..who knew?).

    Back to the LPO: on the whole, I was impressed by Jurowski’s precision, directness, and economy. I did experience the result as rather episodic, though, even though some of the episodes were truly magnificent (for example, the way the VC’s scherzo teetered madly on the brink, with consummate rhythmic control and unity). There is no doubt he can conduct extremely challenging scores like the S4 and VC with confidence and command. I’m looking forward to hearing a lot more of him with the BSO, too, and hope he is a frequent visitor. I’m not convinced he’d be a good choice temperamentally, though, as music director. I appreciate and commend him for his seriousness and intensity as a musician, but wonder what kind of fit it might be over time with this orchestra, in this city. Transformative, perhaps, but let’s hear and see more: Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Debussy, Bartók, new music.

    I can’t imagine the search for MD is going to be over anytime soon.

    Comment by nimitta — March 12, 2013 at 12:27 pm

  5. Yes, there are two Simon Carringtons. I checked with the choral conductor and former BBC bass player Simon Carrington, familiar to Boston audiences, and he joked that if he had remained in the musicians’ union in London, Simon Carrington the percussionist would have had to change his name!

    Comment by Cheryl Ryder — March 14, 2013 at 10:30 am

  6. Some years ago I heard a tape of his live performance of the Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was one of the slowest, most distended and disjointed performances I have ever heard of anything — and none of the sorrow, passion, and enthusiam you’d get in this work from Toscanini 60 years ago.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — March 15, 2013 at 1:43 pm

  7. I just remembered that it may not have been the Philadelphia but another orchestra. But it was terrible.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — March 15, 2013 at 1:45 pm

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