Jurowski, London Philharmonic and Repin play it cool on a wintry night

March 9, 2013 at 3:32 pm

By David Wright

Vadim Repin performs Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo credit: Robert Torres / Celebrity Series.

Outside Symphony Hall on Friday night, a foot of wet late-winter snow was piling up in the streets of Boston. Inside, the winter weather was clear, brilliant and chilly, as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by its principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski, gave high-impact, low-sentiment performances of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Also featured in the concert, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, was violinist Vadim Repin, tackling the responsibility of playing almost continuously during the concerto’s four substantial movements.

Repin’s violin spoke with authority in the concerto’s first bars, the tone full yet focused even in the predominantly soft dynamic of the work’s opening Nocturne.  The movement’s long, wayward melodic lines in notes of equal duration are a challenge to perform convincingly, but Repin’s phrasing instincts and superb bow control served him well here.

One sensed, however, a certain emotional distance from the material on Repin’s part—a defensible choice, given the music’s unsettling, dreamlike character.  Jurowski and the orchestra added nightmarish touches of their own, with groans rising from low strings and winds, strangely penetrating and organ-like woodwind chords, and the earthquake rumble of basses and a rolling tam-tam.

The Londoners proved a tight band indeed in the Scherzo, playing as one as they snapped out the movement’s irresistible rhythms.  Crisp woodwinds took the spotlight again, especially Paul Richards’s sardonic bass clarinet.  Soloist Repin managed to play with both focused control and abandon.

Jurowski painted the variations of the Passacaglia in bold colors—sometimes perhaps to excess, as when he prompted tuba player Lee Tsarmaklis to drown out the rest of the orchestra with elephantine bellows.  Variations for low woodwinds and horns again pumped out their organ-like blocks of sound.

Repin’s air of detachment in the soloist’s variations was less defensible here than in the first movement.  Playing a “modern” composer with objectivity may suit some works by Stravinsky, but with Shostakovich one needs to sense the anguish and desolation behind the sneering mask.  And in a curious tendency that was also noticeable in the first movement, this violinist whose intonation was so spot-on in fast passages could be heard feeling for pitches when the going got slow.

Repin’s gifted bow greatly enriched the long solo cadenza that connects the last two movements, coloring, swelling, tapering, plumping, and thinning the phrases or even individual notes.  As the double- and triple-stops flew thick and fast, Repin dazzled with his chords and accurate leaps, and played with mounting energy right into the finale.

The closing Burlesque was another virtuoso turn for orchestra and soloist together, roaring around the music’s tight corners in near-perfect ensemble. Biting high woodwinds took their turn driving the music ahead, and Jurowski needed only minimal gestures to hold it all together.  It was music that played to these musicians’ strengths, and the expressive blandness of earlier movements was almost forgotten in the brilliance of the last.

For any conductor, it’s hard not to be self-conscious when approaching Beethoven’s Fifth, one of the most performed and parsed pieces of music in existence.  How to differentiate one’s performance from all the others?  Just “the first four notes” pose such an interpretive challenge that an entire book with that title, devoted just to them, was recently published.

Too few conductors seem to remember their teacher’s long-ago advice: Just play it the way you think it should sound, and it will be different.  Maybe Jurowski was doing that on Friday night, but it seemed one could hear the wheels turning as he made one unusual interpretive choice after another, while letting the piece as a whole get away from him.

Start with the size of the orchestra: It was hard to be sure without a head count, but the Symphony Hall stage looked more crowded with players than it usually is for a Beethoven symphony these days.  This suited Jurowski’s fondness for outsized crescendos that tended to call attention to themselves rather than serve the expression of the music.  Even the famous long transition between the tiptoeing scherzo and the fortissimo finale depends for its effect on tension and suspense, not just how much louder it gets.

A certain amount of bringing out details in the score can enhance a performance, and many of Jurowski’s choices did that.  After a while, however, his tendency to feature the winds if they were doing anything even halfway interesting came to seem like a mannerism.  Meanwhile, the strings often lacked definition, notably in the symphony’s opening pages.

The Andante con moto opened promisingly with plenty of “moto,” but eventually lost its way.  This highly episodic piece is hard enough to find the narrative line for in the best of circumstances, but when one is audibly striving for a different effect every few bars—a big swell here, a sudden pianissimo there—the piece’s forward “moto” comes to a halt, and with it the music’s expressive arc.  However, the conductor may argue that he is embracing the movement’s quirkiness for what it is, and some listeners may prefer that interpretation.

The scherzo posed few such questions, and went untroubled on its way.  Again the strings sounded indistinct in pianissimo, but one had to admire the way the agile double basses flung out the fast theme of the trio.

The finale’s well-known problem, after its glorious opening chords, is (as Berlioz wrote) “to sustain such a height of effect” through the long, sonata-form movement that follows.  One might observe, based on Friday’s performance, that the bigger the crescendo leading into the finale, the larger this problem looms after it.  The solution lies somewhere in the pacing and characterization of the themes, and finding a way to maintain dramatic tension throughout the movement.  While Jurowski did not fully achieve that, he did set exaggerated inflections aside and move the music ahead—especially, and to good effect, in the famously long-winded coda.

The nextCelebrity Series event will be baritone Nathan Gunn 8 p.m. Friday at Jordan Hall.  celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

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