sat 25/11/2017

Gutman, LPO, Jurowski, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

Gutman, LPO, Jurowski, RFH

Gutman, LPO, Jurowski, RFH

A legendary cellist and a long Bruckner original face difficulties

Natalia Gutman and Vladimir Jurowski in rehearsalBoth images by Laurie Lewis

Risk-taking is what gives so many of Vladimir Jurowski's concerts with the London Philharmonic Orchestra their special savour. But did two risks for last night's programme pay off? I was as excited as many Russians and hardcore Russophiles at the rare visit of legendary 73-year-old cellist Natalia Gutman, and it could only be interesting to hear the little-heard, hour-long first version of Bruckner's Third Symphony. But interesting, with a few flashes of inspiration, was as far as it went in both cases.

Gutman's recording of the two Shostakovich Cello Concertos is up there with the interpretations of her mentor Rostropovich, and she has another claim to making history: Alfred Schnittke wrote his First Cello Concerto and his masterpiece of a Cello Sonata for her. It was a canny idea to place Schnittke's terrifying Pianissimo of 1967-8 first. You could of course take those little jabs of sound which accumulate over one long crescendo as the thousand lashes of life in Brezhnev's Soviet Union, but Schnittke's cited source, if more local, is even more alarming: Kafka's In the Penal Colony, where a machine which slowly pricks the names of the convicts onto their backs claims the commander as its victim. The climax, in which as Schnittke put it, "a mustily fomenting mass...finally rises up and explodes", was inexorably gauged here.

Nerves were already raw at the intelligence that Gutman (pictured below) had been suffering severe back problems – hence the cushion on her seat – and that the rehearsal had been touch-and-go. Bent over her cello with the trademark mop of black hair covering her eyes, and her face in shadow, she launched into the endgame of Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto – a more philosophical work than the First – as if playing to herself.

Natalia Gutman by Laurie LewisThis had the capacity to be a great Shakespearean monologue, the kind of seriousness we'd missed in Jurowski's neat and generously offered 6pm whizz through Shostakovich's first, vaudevillesque incidental music for a farcical 1932 Hamlet (more than promising solos here from LPO Foyle Future Firsts flautist Bronte Hudnott and clarinettist Som Howie). What Gutman could no longer extend to was the fullest of voices; in intense double stopping the pitch could falter. The centre held thanks to the keen listening and sound-matching of the orchestral players, which started with intense cellos and basses – and more watching of Jurowski than I've seen from the LPO before.

Rhythmically natural, more hit-and-miss pitchwise, Gutman shone a beautiful light on the poignant, classical ritornellos of the complex finale – half Brittenesque lullaby-lament (the two composers knew each other well by 1966), half tiptoe dance with death. The two orchestral fanfares and monster-stomp which ushered in percussion-backed cadenzas were aptly blinding, the final shadowplay haunting as it must be. The whole just about came off, but it was not a comfortable experience to watch – and maybe that's right for such music.

Jurowski made sure that each of the string groups had its cohesive soundDiscomfort in Bruckner, for this listener at least, sometimes turns to exasperation. Surely none of his symphonies has more of those masses followed by voids than the Third; explain them how you will, inappropriate cathedral analogies included – certainly a more resonant acoustic than that of the Festival Hall might help – but their awkwardness soon ceases to be a virtue when three of the movements run at such length in the 1873 original. I'd come to know the work through the standard revision, about a quarter of an hour shorter, and it was hard to hear the point of extensive developments when they're on a hiding to nowhere.

No doubt it's good for the orchestra to have so much sectional exposure; Juliette Bausor crowned the flute ensemble with ineffable air and space, the horns had exactly that right Austro-German darkness, and Jurowski made sure that each of the string groups shone with a cohesive sound: the violas sounded amazing in the hymns of the slow movement, and suitably earthy in the Ländler at the heart of the Scherzo, where the second violins also get their moment in the sun. It was good to hear the two homages to the "Magic Fire Music" of Wagner's Die Walküre, which vanished from subsequent revisions (not that Bruckner seems to have grasped the dramaturgy; at a performance he apparently asked why they were setting fire to Brünnhilde).

The polka-meets-chorale sequence of the finale made a winsome sequence too. But all that comical flaring around it? Worth it, perhaps, to hear Paul Beniston, so perfect a trumpeter in the symphony's misty opening, get his unearned apotheosis after clunky reminiscences of other movements from earlier in the symphony. Still, I couldn't help thinking it might have been better if Bruckner had given us four symphonies less and whole sequences of Austrian dances instead. Maybe I just lack all sense of the Brucknerian sublime, but even when it had such height and depth in ensembles as here, I just didn't buy it.

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