tue 09/08/2022

LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

Searing Prokofiev scores over his worthy but turgid composer-friend Myaskovsky

For many of us, this was bound to be an emotional evening. Noëlle Mann, doyenne of all things Prokofievian on the editorial, archival, teaching and performing fronts, died peacefully at home last Friday, and it was to her that Vladimir Jurowski dedicated a typically bold programme of Prokofiev's late epic for cello and orchestra, the Symphony-Concerto, and a big but rather less focused symphony by his closest composer-friend Nikolay Myaskovsky. Perhaps it's presumptuous to speak for the departed; but I could hear Noëlle responding vitally to her master's voice, applauding Jurowski for championing the lesser-known figure but sternly proclaiming the verdict shared by most of us: that while Prokofiev was touched by the divine spirit, poor, diligent Myaskovsky clearly wasn't.

"What could be worse than a long symphony?" wrote the 16-year-old Prokofiev to Myaskovsky, his senior by a decade, in 1907. "To me, the ideal of a perfect size for a symphony is one that runs for 20, maximum 30, minutes". To start with, at least, he adhered to that principle - and he only composed seven symphonies (seven and a half if we include the hybrid work looming so large in last night's first half). Myaskovsky wrote 27, and even the Sixth of 1921-3, his longest at over an hour but also his most consistently intense, has what Prokofiev called "longueurs".

It couldn't have received a more focused or passionate interpretation. Jurowski turned the corners of the repetitive chromatic welters with immaculate emphasis, etched the brief woodwind idylls and celesta-led dream-images of the Dies Irae with plenty of atmosphere and dashed through the finale's opening potpourri of French revolutionary songs as if it were great music rather than a Korngoldian film score.

Myaskovsky apparently had in mind here the final charge and death of a revolutionary hero (thanks to David Fanning's excellent notes for clarification - and thank you, LPO, for restoring sane expertise to your programmes). The quiet close, with a chorus giving the soul a heavenly send-off while the body remains below, is interesting but, like the rest of the symphony, left many of us unmoved. The ideas simply aren't strong or original enough, the orchestration unimaginatively applied compared to Prokofiev's work at the same time. We know that the depressive Myaskovsky was a sincere and honourable human being, but still the sincerity didn't come across in this laboured, lugubrious score. Jurowski will give us a further chance to compare with a near-contemporary masterpiece by Myaskovsky's junior colleague when he conducts Prokofiev's Third Symphony at the Proms.

Ideally, last night's programme order would have been reversed, with the later Prokofiev work after rather than before the interval, though I don't know whether the bored or the puzzled in a surprisingly young audience would have come back. At any rate Prokofiev's curious hybrid, which is truly half a very embattled symphony, half a concerto with a hair-raisingly difficult role influenced by collaoration with the young Rostropovich, seems to go further into the personal realm than the earlier concerto from which it derives (thankfully the long-misleading title  "Sinfonia concertante" is being consigned to the dustbin of history) . Prokofiev was seriously ill and harrowed by the Soviet regime when he completed the Symphony-Concerto just over a year before his death in 1953. It's tempting to read into it a conflict between demonic and personal forces, but there are certain quotations to reinforce that view - like the one from Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini in the whirlwind scherzo which surely evokes the Dante quote "there is no greater sorrow than to recall times of happiness in misery".

It was perhaps helpful for those of us ready to blub at the slightest hint of a soulful tune that cultured young German-Japanese cellist Danjulo Ishizaka kept it all focused, unsentimental but still deeply expressive. An extra rehearsal might have helped, but what set the performance soaring was Ishizaka's apparent breaking of a string just before the denouement of the harrowing second movement. He went off, Jurowski took a quick decision on where to go back to, and, after quite a break, up the intensity levels went. They stayed up in the sometimes playful variations of the finale which finally dissolve in dreams and end in escape from the demons.

Co-ordination between soloist and orchestra was strong. Ishizaka's channelled sound always rose above ensembles - though Prokofiev's scoring is usually very careful - and he duetted chillingly with each of Prokofiev's idiosyncratic low trumpet parts (Nicholas Betts and Anne McAneny, superlative). As the cellist signed off in perilous but brilliantly negotiated highest register, I was reminded of the way Ishizaka's senior colleague Sasha Ivashkin described the final flight in a demonstration lecture as the soul squeezing through the narrow gates of paradise when hell is all around. That's another insight - from the 2003 Manchester Prokofiev events - we'd never have had without Noëlle's tireless organisational skills.

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As always, this is both a comprehensive and enlightening review from David Nice of Wednesday night's LPO/Prokofiev/Myaskovsky concert at the RFH which I also attended. Yet again, Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO have us in their debt for bold, imaginative and exploratory programming, and the rare opportunity to hear Myaskovsky’s Sixth Symphony set against one of Prokofiev’s more demanding works, the Symphony-Concerto for Cello, made this concert unmissable. In the event, the Myaskovksy was absolutely fascinating, a very fine piece with a unique symphonic voice growing out of and beyond the palpitations of Scriabin’s hothouse; grand without being overblown, but also presenting a gloriously memorable melodic gift and exquisite orchestration, as in the Presto’s Trio section, this is a very moving work that I shall undoubtedly re-visit. The hair-raisingly difficult Prokofiev Concerto received a fine performance from Danjulo Ishizaka, apart from an extraordinary crash in the second movement, and I am rather concerned that I have a significantly different perception of what actually happened. I have also read reviews by Ed Seckerson and Classical Source, and all of you, to a man, state that the cellist's walk-off during the Prokofiev was due to a broken string. Now I was sitting in row K, (Ed Seckerson was in J as I recall), so not very far from the action, intently watching the cellist, and I certainly did not see or hear a string go. When a cello string breaks, it makes one hell of a ping and flops about all over the place. I certainly did not see that happen. What I did see was Ishizaka suddenly stop and look up disconsolately at Jurowski and walk off, but not trailing a broken string. This looked to me, and I've seen it before, like a very unfortunate memory lapse. It was quite some time before Ishizaka came back on, and one of the percussionists was clearly sent off to find him or find out what was going on. Everyone looked mystified, including Jurowski. These incidents are profoundly distressing for the artist and very disconcerting for the audience. However, fortunately, the soloist returned to warm applause, completed the performance and received a very enthusiastic and well-deserved reception. I'm not trying to be ungenerous to anyone here, least of all to a very capable and brave young soloist, but I am rather disconcerted about the differences between what I thought I witnessed and what I am actually reading about. Why would that be? A broken string is a clearly broken string; a memory lapse is a memory lapse. Which was it?

As I temporarily noted before I decided (probably just as temporarily) to retract it, Hedgehog, we're investigating. I'd like to be accurate (though I guess I'm a critic, not a reporter). But my instinct is not to try and make things hard for this excellent performer. These things happen; but what if an agent reads and says, 'oh, he had a memory lapse, maybe it'll happen again'? A delicate situation, you'll agree. But since you ask, I'm endeavouring to get an answer from the LPO.

Vladimir Jurowski confirms: "it was without any doubt a broken A-string - the same as the day before during rehearsal in nearly the same episode (spooky!). Danjulo has nerves of steel and knows the piece inside out (including the orchestral part!) - you can take my word for it".

I completely disagree with your review of this concert. I regard the Symphony-Concerto by Prokofiev as one of his least inspired works, although I agree that the performance was excellent. Myaskovsky's 6th Symphony, by contrast, I regard as an epic masterpiece, which should be much better known. The suggestion that the order of the works should have been reversed, with the Prokofiev coming after the interval is absurd. I did think, however, that the fine choir inthe Myaskovsky work should have been either on or off the stage, rather than half on the stage.

Sincere thanks for the extremely conscientious approach to this - in a sense way beyond normal responsibilities as a critic rather than 'investigative reporter'. The clarification is clearly important for everyone, and especially for the performer. I am most grateful for these efforts and for the report of a verification by VJ himself and others that this was indeed a broken string. The repeat breakage in the same passage (and Ishizaka's use of Rostropovich's) cello does add a particularly weird dimension of 'spooking'.

My perception of the broken string episode was the same as yours, but my friends, who were sitting nearer to the stage heard the string break. I also am much more in agreement with your review of the concert than the one written by David Nice who is clearly totally unsympathetic to the Myaskovsky work. Paradoxically, for me, it was the Prokofiev work which, notwithstanding the unscheduled break, seemed to go on interminably (and I say this as an admirer of Prokofiev).

It would be best if 'critics' ould read up on works they hear , too often they reveal their ignorance more than their knowledge s Nice does once more....Myaskovsky's sixth is among the great Russian symphonies. reading his criticism as I do Seckerson's about the work's longitude reminds one of the criticisms made iof Bruckner and Mahler when they too were not 'flavour of the month'. This symphony was influential to many sucha s hostakovich in the underlying angst and bitterness of the revolution, rather than a revolutionary hero, it is more a requiem to those who died in the revolution and for the hopes of the russian intelligentsia

Increasingly it's best not to respond to hostile 'I know best comments, but I fail to see how an attitude amounts to ignorance'. In this instance, Gregor, I must insist that I have indeed read up on Myaskovsky, as you ought to know - not just in having translated all of those letters between him and Prokofiev already unavailable in English, but having studied the scores of many of the symphonies, listened to all 27 and read Ikonnikov's book as well as others in which NYM features. I came to this concert with no prejudice nor lack of sympathy as the previous commenter insists; indeed, I thought it fine when I listened with score in hand to Jarvi's performances. As far as I'm concerned, fine intentions and an honourable character do not always translate into a masterpiece. Yes, there's much to admire in this work but the faults I found in it everyone around me, most of them new to the piece, found too. So I'm going to leave it at that.

Interesting to return to this review after eleven years. What I find interesting is David Nice's assertion (above) that he came to this concert with 'no prejudice' and yet, in the intervening years I have noticed that, despite this assertion, he never fails to rubbish the music of Miaskovsky (see his recent review of the Oslo CD featuring Symphony No.21). In a mention of Miaskovsky's lovely and eloquent (in my opinion) Cello Concerto, Mr Nice had to point out, in another review, how much he disliked the work. Miaskovsky performances are few and far between. Mr Nice's hostile attitude to the composer's music is likely to result in even fewer performances.

It is not at all hostile. I have spent much time on Miaskovsky's symphonies in my Russian music Zoom course, and found many beauties there (quoting them). But I still find the overall results uneven.

Thank you for replying. I'll be interested to read what you have to say if you review the forthcoming Oslo PO CD featuring Prokofiev's 6th Symphony and NYM's valedictory Symphony No.27.

I'm due to do just that for the BBC Music Magazine. I can tell you, meanwhile, that I really love the slow introduction of the Fourth Symphony. Two of the piano sonatas are incredibly tough and powerful, too. Although I have the complete symphonies cycle conducted by Svetlanov on CD, I'm grateful to whoever put up the scores to accompany performances on YouTube.

I shall look forward to reading your views of the new Oslo PO disc. I don't disagree with you about NYM's output being uneven, although I clearly have a much higher opinion of the 6th Symphony and the Cello Concerto than you have. I agree with you about the fine opening of the 4th Symphony which I have just been listening to. The 5th Piano Sonata and 13th string quartet are other favourites.

I certainly would not claim that 'I know best' when it comes to Myaskovsky's 6th Symphony, but surely it is not unreasonable to comment (especially as your arts desk has a 'comments' section, which presumably invites comments) on an almost exclusively negative review of a work which one holds dear, especially when the reviewer claims to represent the view of a host of people: '...left many of us unmoved...the verdict shared by most of us..etc' I was also with a group of people (five to be precise) all of whom were captivated by Myaskovsky's score and who only experienced 'longuers' during the Prokofiev work (and I too am an admirer of Prokofiev). My own final word on this is to say that I as very moved by the performance of Myaskovsky's 6th Symphony, especially the wonderful flute episode in the trio section of the scherzo and by the incredibly moving conclusion, and to say that I am inclined to agree with the view which regards Myaskovsky's 6th Symphony as the greatest Russian/Soviet symphony between Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony and Shostakovich's 4th Symphony.

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