Vladimir Jurowski Conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Prokofiev and Shostakovich

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Vladimir Jurowski. Photo: Roman Gontcharov.

Vladimir Jurowski. Photo: Roman Gontcharov.

London Philharmonic
Vladimir Jurowski conductor
Patricia Kopatchinskaja violin

Stravinsky – Jeu de cartes
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No. 2
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 6

Crossing the color line. In the twentieth century Russian music became a standoff between revolution and counter-revolution, the irony being that the White Russian composers who fled the Bolsheviks were the true revolutionaries while the Reds who stayed to endure Soviet rule were forced to toe the line of backward-looking conservatism. But the music isn’t easily color-coded. Vladimir Jurowski led a concert of neoclassical Stravinsky and romantic Prokofiev that betrayed almost no revolutionary instincts, ending with the painful wail of the Shostakovich Sixth Symphony, whose Soviet credentials were never pure enough to satisfy the apparatchiks of the Composers Union.

There are long stretches in London’s orchestral season that feel like all Russia, all the time, thanks to the influx of brilliant emigre conductors like Jurowski and his senior rival, Valery Gergiev. There’s a lot more high-calorie Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov in this diet than there needs to be, but at least we got a nod to lean cuisine in Stravinsky’s dry-champagne score to Balanchine’s ballet, Jeu de cartes, which portrays a poker game “in three deals,” each preceded by a musical shuffle of the deck. On stage the Joker, Queens, and Aces are a pretty pack, but by itself Straivnsky’s score strikes me as one of his twittering machines that clicks along, unfolding impeccable rhythmic puzzles and not much feeling. The score gets liberated under conductors who defy the composer’s literalist podium style to inject sombre vibrancy. Jurowski chose not to do this, however, preferring efficiency and precision.

Jeu de cartes dates from 1936-37, in the middle of Stravinsky’s thirty-year neoclassical period, and while drumming my fingers on the arm of my chair, I mused about the oddity that after Le sacre du printemps frightened the horses in 1913, the howls of detractors grew louder when Stravinsky failed to produce another barbaric yawp (excluding the still revolutionary-sounding wedding ritual, Les noces). He turned instead to the quietude of a quasi-Baroque idiom that at first was greeted as an inside joke (like a bare-knucle fighter pausing for a manicure) only to go on, decade after decade, until it became clear that Stravinsky really meant it. Even now there are critics who cannot understand why he waved the red flag of revolution only to settle down and knit lace doilies. But his neoclassical period produced a wealth of fascinating works, and on an evening when my ear was keener, Jeu de cartes would have sounded like one.

If Stravinsky offended by ignoring the tumult of the twentieth century, Prokofiev plunged into it when he returned, lonely and poor, to his native Russia in 1936, not so much sick of the West as sick of playing second fiddle to Stravinsky in Paris. With shocking harmonies and abrasive noise (see the Scythian Suite, Second Piano Concerto, and Third Symphony) Prokofiev blatantly competed for the modernist crown just as Stravinsky was taking it to the pawn shop, but coming home brought out his sweetest and dreamiest music, as bizarre as that sounds amidst the horrors of Stalin’s bloody show trials. We heard the Second Violin Concerto, premiered in 1936, whose slow movement could step in as a lost pas de deux from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet; the luscious melody has bedroom eyes.

The concerto is easy-listen Prokofiev despite a scratchy, rather lumpish finale, and in the never-ending afterglow of David Oistrakh, almost every soloist stands tall and throws the music over the footlights with dash and bravado. Which makes last night’s reading by Moldavian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja all the more rewarding. She and Jurowski teased out every possible thread of nuance and glowing harmony, making you recognize real substance beneath the gloss. I’d nominate Jurowski as the greatest living conductor of Prokofiev (his recording of the Fifth Symphony is a revelation), and by taking nothing for granted, he and Kopatchinskaja, now in her mid-thirties, were captivating. Dressed in pre-Raphaelite white and slender as a sylph, she dared to play very softly at times but never demurely; her finale was gut and sinew.

But the emotional high point of the concert came in the long, anguished Largo that begins the Shostakovich Sixth. More than half the length of the whole work, this arc of rhapsodic sorrow was long identified with the century’s towering Shostakovich conductor, Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered the Sixth in 1939. Stripped of Stravinksy’s aloof detachment and Prokofiev’s marzipan fantasies, Shostakovich’s Largo speaks for history at its most soul-wrenching, and yet it is miraculously soothing and uplifting at the same time. I never thought to hear anyone apply the kind of sustained pressure that Mravinsky keeps up for twenty minutes, but Jurowski did, and the London Philharmonic, coasting on one of the highest crests in its history, played with heartbreaking emotion. The way that Jurowski balanced every orchestral voice was a joy to hear. Even though the two quick, Rossini-like movements that top off the Sixth usually feel like scampering terriers chasing after a tank, he gave them a manic edge and freed up the musicians to romp at their most virtuosic. Here was modernism cast in rage and tears. The joker had been thrown out of the deck, replaced by the Hanged Man and a specter wielding a scythe.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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