Jurowski, BSO team up for stirring Brahms and Wagner at Tanglewood

July 20, 2013 at 1:11 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Vladimir Jurowski conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in music of Wagner, Liszt and Brahms Friday night at Tanglewood.

Brahms’ First Symphony, crafted in the same tradition as Beethoven’s monumental Fifth, moves from tragedy to triumph. The work was the focus of Friday night’s concert at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Shed, where Vladimir Jurowski, in his Tanglewood debut, led the Boston Symphony Orchestra with a clear vision of the symphony’s shape and trajectory.

The stalwart Russian conductor opened the piece with broad, sweeping gestures. The BSO answered, slotting the music’s interweaving and ever-morphing lines squarely into place.

Brahms’ score is perhaps most appealing for its handy use of orchestral color and abundant solo passages, and Friday’s performance was notable for its cantabile wind playing. Solo oboe and clarinet gracefully rendered their solo lines in the opening movements.

Jurowski’s vision was clearest in the inner movements. In each, he pushed the tempo slightly, giving the music a supple flow. The quick tempo made for a lilting Intermezzo, where the rhythms burbled with syncopation. With the return of the main theme, Jurowski slowed the tempo slightly, segueing, almost attaca, into the opening statement of the fourth movement from the Intermezzo’s final chord.

The BSO was in fine form as the music moved from enigmatic minor-key murmurings to triumphant C-major declarations. The solo French horn heralded its calls with airy tension. Keen playing from the strings made for a stirring performance of the movement’s principal theme, recalling Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. In the coda, Jurowski pulled back on the reins, stretching out the cadences for a satisfying conclusion.

To open the concert, Jurowski led the BSO in a stately and focused reading of Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. An overture in all but name, the piece comprises themes the composer used in the opera. Sharply-hewn march rhythms and commanding brass fanfares were the memorable standouts under Jurowski’s guide.

But even more colorful and energetic playing from the orchestra came in their performance of Liszt’s Totentanz, which brought Jean-Yves Thibaudet to the piano as soloist.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Completed in 1859 but revised many times later, Totentanz is a set of grandiose, even grotesque variations on the chant Dies irae, the trademark motif for apocalyptic horror in much nineteenth-century music.

Thibaudet’s clear, sparkling technique well suited the technical and musical demands of the work. He controlled each variation, from the music’s dance-like rhythms to the thunderous, knuckle-busting cascades of chords, with charm and well-wrought phrasing. His pearly tone also made for an affectionate canon at the work’s center.

Supporting him, Jurowski sturdily led the orchestra in its decorative accompaniment. Finger cymbals and pizzicato strings shimmered with Thibaudet’s crystalline touch in the upper register, and percussive attacks and stentorian brass, especially in direct quotes of the chant itself, gave the music terrifying depth and focus. Only on occasion did they overpower the ensemble and soloist.

As an encore, Thibaudet offered a tender reading of Liszt’s Consolation No. 3 in D flat major.

Lothar Koenigs will direct the BSO in Act 3 of Wagner’s Die Walküre, with Bryn Terfel, Katarina Dalayman, and Amber Wagner 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Tanglewood. Pinchas Zukerman will lead members of the BSO in works Vivaldi, Bach, and Telemann, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. bso.org 

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