tue 22/10/2019

LPO, Jurowski, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

LPO, Jurowski, RFH

LPO, Jurowski, RFH

London's dream team dazzle and scare in Shostakovich

Jurowski - unstinting dynamism in a hostile landscape

Laid-back Tenerife and Gran Canaria won't know what's hit them when the London Philharmonic Orchestra and its principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski land next week. The islands can expect to be sense-bombed by the jungly exuberance of Szymanowski and devastated by the scorched-earth tactics of Shostakovich at his most extreme. Even Londoners used to the highly sophisticated assaults of the city's most challenging orchestral partnership, and faced with the same programme last night, may have been taken aback by the keenly directed electricity of the occasion.

Jurowski certainly knows how to make his players burn, but he's a cannier orchestrator, so to speak, of his chosen works' effect than a mere man of the inspired moment like Valery Gergiev, and his programmes are always greater than the sum of their parts. This one started with shards from the summer of 1935, enigmatic orchestral studies which the young Shostakovich clearly intended for performance, since he gave them an opus number. Yet these cool and only fitfully sarcastic character-sketches, reordered by Jurowski so that the most serious and slow number came prophetically last, could only really add up after the interval. That was when a monstrously large orchestra finally came together for the Fourth Symphony, completed over a year later when the genius-iconoclast's life under Stalin had turned to dust and ashes.

Trust Jurowski to defy expectations. The half-hour-long first movement usually sounds like some lumbering behemoth, lost in the symphonic forest of its own making and constantly imploding, a shackled relic of the Mahlerian era. Jurowski's creature, though, danced and swayed its way through the vast opening paragraphs, waltzed on tiptoe in the twilight zones and saved its most savage thrashes for the heart of darkness. Strings tore up the earth in frantic, fugueing semiquavers, throwing caution to the winds and provoking brass and percussion to re-enact the sexual violence of Shostakovich's near-contemporary opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Even in all this, the thematic lines loomed through the chaos loud and clear, allowing the thread to hold through to the post-apocalyptic coda.

It was as well that Jurowski mostly startled rather than bludgeoned us in the symphony's first half; the full-frontal assault came later, as a funeral march tarred with low brass and contrabassoon announced a higher tragedy and the ever-present bassoon solo - John Price, imposing but human, only one among a host of orchestral principals called upon to play a crucial role - took up where he had left off before the watershed. As the woodwind wailed its protest at the attempted closing of the coffin-lid, initiating a whole new episode of dogged resistance, Jurowski's clear but idiosyncratic conducting vocabulary spoke of gnawing and biting.

He wrought magical colours in the finale's unexpected, hallucinogenic ballet divertissement, and made sure that the horrible C major triumph of brute force truly was the loudest in a mountain chain of symphonic climaxes. After this, we faced the most devastating slow fade in symphonic history. Worried about an apoplectic spectator sitting behind the orchestra, I closed my eyes and caught the full, silky spectrum of failing lower-string heartbeats, ghost fanfares and laments subsiding into another of those deafening silences which Jurowski holds so masterfully.

No such aftershocks resounded following the dreamscapes of Polish fantasist Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto.  Enfolded within Jurowski's curvaceous LPO and its firefly lights, soloist Carolin Widmann was free to create the illusion of improvising Szymanowski's slippery melodies. It was probably right that her tone sometimes disappeared in the instrumental wash, though she clearly relished her tough little cadenza and the lovemaking strings before it. Curtain calls could only bring a certain post-coital embarrassment.

Even so, the concerto is like a travel destination branded "exotic" but with little to take in once all but the most humanly curious have admired its vague beauties. Stravinsky left this perfumed world behind after The Firebird in 1910; Szymanowski was still basking in the turn-of-the-century hothouse six years later. Yet his was a necessary sensuousness to stroke us between Shostakovich's sharpest edges. Let's hope Jurowski can persuade Glyndebourne to let his orchestra create the same focused inferno in a Lady Macbeth of the South Downs.

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