|Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic with Vadim Repin on violin.|
There's always something to be said for taking on a warhorse, even if it's Beethoven's Fifth, that warhorse of all warhorses - which conductor Vladimir Jurowski (above) sent through its paces with the London Philharmonic in their Celebrity Series appearance at Symphony Hall last weekend.
That said, I'm not quite sure what (if anything) new Jurowski had to say about the Fifth - yet oddly, I have to admit, whatever it was, he said it well. And loudly, too. For Jurowski assembled enormous forces for the Fifth - not quite the army Daniel Barenboim mustered for his siege on the Second and Third a few weeks back, but close. And as you know, I'm not all that sympathetic to arena-rock Beethoven anymore; almost every investigation of the grand Ludwig van I've heard in the past half decade has been on original instruments, with smaller, more probing ensembles. I've read that Jurowski nodded to period performance by utilizing period horns and timpani, but somehow the individual profiles of these instruments were swallowed in the onslaught of the rest of the orchestra. I admit the idea of a post-modern orchestral sound, drawn from both the modern and period traditions, is highly intriguing - but solving the problems of balance inherent in such a new formulation is going to require a deep re-consideration of orchestral forces, rather than just a handful of period add-ons. Meanwhile, when it comes to the grand gesture, the titanic climax - I hope we can agree they're pretty much played out. I mean by the time bad rock bands are imitating your sound, you know the intellectual jig is up; can't we leave the heavy orchestral metal to Emerson, Lake and Palmer (or von Karajan), wherever they are?
Still, if Jurowski's touch was heavy, it was also precise; while what was most striking about the Philharmonic was its chunky bass (the perfect reverb of Symphony Hall has rarely gotten more of a workout), the conductor shaped that thunderous thump with a meditative, muscular lyricism. And he hardly let the Fifth sink into a repetitive crunch; indeed, the shifting dynamic he sustained throughout the work was remarkable. The famously insistent knock of the first four notes of the opening movement seemed sculpted afresh for each of their many variations, and the ensuing Andante con moto seemed more singing than usual - even if it stutters in any number of ways. The third movement proved more interesting still - Jurowski let the orchestra drop to something close to a whisper (comparatively) before roaring into the final Allegro, whose multiple finishes he negotiated with convincing energy, if not purpose.
The deep end of the orchestra's sound proved even more appropriate to the first half of Jurowski's program, the leviathan Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich. Penned during the waning years of Stalin's reign, the concerto delivers this composer's familiar mix of intellectual melancholy (even despair) with a recurring clash of colossal forces, and a manic, crude kind of zeal. The Russian-born Jurowski's heavy but sensitive hand (which drew particularly strong work from the winds) proved a good match to the concerto's Stalinist demands - but the focus here is inevitably on the soloist, who plays almost relentlessly throughout, often through long sequences of devilish difficulty.
Violinist Vadim Repin - another Russian - was more than up to these technical requirements, hanging onto both intonation and clarity as he scrambled madly through thickets of double and triple stops. Still, he seemed to be operating at one remove from the composer's concerns; this is music that should set your hair on end, and Repin never seemed possessed, or tinged with actual madness. Indeed, his best moments came in the desolate Nocturne, and the eloquently anguished - and poignantly sane - passages of the third movement (in which a four-note motif, in the one bridge between the two halves of the program, faintly echoes the Fifth). Still, he and Jurowski were operating in near-perfect synchrony, particularly in the shattering final Burlesca. In my more skeptical moments during the program, I wondered if it hadn't been concocted as a kind of big, bold, unspoken audition, as Jurowski is clearly in the running for the top spot at the BSO. But to be honest, by the finale of the Fifth, I think many in Symphony Hall would have been happy to give him the job.