The Celebrity Series of Boston offers top-notch artists and performing ensembles from around the world. With a Russian at the helm, it is no surprise that the Shostakovich Concerto would match or exceed expectations. The question was whether the Beethoven would.
By Richard R. Bunbury.
What, another Beethoven Five? That sums up my initial reaction. When a major orchestra tours abroad, its directors typically plan programs that will generate a great deal of interest or reflect its native composers. Not only did Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic (in Boston on March 8th via the Celebrity Series of Boston) read the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 in a convincing and compelling manner, but the Beethoven was quite unlike any performance I had ever heard.
Dimitri Shostakovich knew he was in trouble with the Soviet authorities in 1948 when he topped the list of censured composers. It wasn’t the first time, though. Back in 1936, he faced similar public humiliation from Stalin, who considered his music formalistic and elitist. His First Violin Concerto reflects the darkness of a soul pulled in opposite directions by Soviet control and his own complex artistic vision, full of energy and interesting musical ideas.
The first movement, marked Nocturne, was dark and foreboding, the soloist playing in long, static lines. Jagged and sardonic gestures characterized the Scherzo, which takes off in a flurry of Russian folk dances. The rationale for pairing this work with Beethoven’s is made evident in the third movement, Passacaglia, where Shostakovich quotes the famous motive of fate: short, short, short, long. (Talking about composers quoting snippets of other composers’ works is au courant and would surprise many as to how often it was done. Schubert and Brahms, for example, are notable examples who use this motive.) The brightness and clarity of this orchestra was now able to shine in the continuous variations of this movement. The bright timbres of the orchestra provided a foil to violinist Vadim Repin’s bright solo with double stops and antagonistic phrase structures. The brilliant cadenza illustrated Repin’s playing at its best, not to mention Shostakovich’s most appealing writing.
Segue to the the fourth movement, Burlesca. Here the mallet percussion and variety of strong orchestral color in the woodwinds—from the piccolo to the contrabassoon—show no restraint in terms of dynamics. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski drove the orchestra with steely accuracy, menacing to the end. At once the piece became an exhibit of bleakness to wild victory, not unlike what we would hear in the Beethoven.
Over the proscenium arch above the audience, Beethoven’s name stands alone in effigy, but the mark he made on Western European art music is as impenetrable as any. (He intimidated two generations of European composers until Brahms broke the curse with his First Symphony in 1875.) If there is any classical piece of Western music known by practically every individual on earth, it would be this one. And how its opening motive is played will make or break the rest of the piece. I personally despise the elongated and dramatized versions of such conductors as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Otto Klemperer and the like, heard in so many early and mid-twentieth-century recordings, preferring readings closer to those of Beethoven’s time.
Fortunately, Jurowski is among the new breed of European-trained conductors whose success depends on intelligent interpretations. He took the Allegro con brio at an exciting clip, not only keeping the orchestra very tightly together but controlling subtle nuances in dynamics and articulation. His conducting is unusually economical, showing only important beats, almost never beating an entire bar.
Jurowski brought out the same kind of clarity and expressiveness in the inner voices that he did in the Shostakovich but with even more rhythmic vitality. A palpable connection to the Shostakovich was made through the fugato in the third movement of the Beethoven. Sheer genius. The Allegro was brilliant in its drive to the end of Beethoven’s teasing coda. What really got to me was the expansive dynamic range—ranking above any recording or performance I’ve ever heard. The London Philharmonic made its mark on Boston and a full house at Symphony Hall.