A luminous program lit up the inside of Carnegie Hall this week while a cold and driving rain pounded 57th Street. The London Philharmonic might not have brought the U.K.-style weather with them, but they did provide a musical antidote.
The program's time frame ranged from 1775 to 1971, starting with the modernist towards Osiris by Matthew Pintscher. The most striking feature of the stage setup for this highly textural opener was the presence of four fully equipped percussionists. That seemed to promise a slamming good time, and they did show off a spectacular minute of passagework that might have been subtitled Dueling Xylophones.
On the whole the work was more interesting than beautiful, more of a sonic landscape than a songful tone poem. I'll listen to anything as pure music (I can even get into Glenn Gould's notion of spoken conversation being a fugue), but as we moved through Pintscher's atmospheric mood piece I expected to see a movie. It was perfect soundtrack music that struggled to stand on its own, at least with the Carnegie audience. The orchestra players were probably happy to dig into something non-standard, and the composer, who took a bow onstage at the end, was beaming. Out in the seats, polite applause wafted upward as the crowd settled in for something more comprehensible.
Nothing is more easily understood than Mozart, and the fifth violin concerto (the "Turkish") was a mildly articulated tutorial in 18th-century musical manners. Young Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, one of a breed of young glamour stars in Hilary Hahn's generation, was the much anticipated soloist. With a sound like finely threaded silk, her Mozart was lissome and endearing. Jansen and the reduced orchestra (19 players) showed their gut, in both spirit and bow, during the "Turkish" section of the Rondo. During that earthy jaunt they dug hard into the saucy minor key melodies, both lifting and grounding the piece satisfyingly.
(Janine Jansen's growing discography is anchored by a chamber reading of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. In a studio production her refined sound fills the spotlight more certainly, perhaps, than in a vast hall like Carnegie. Recommended for its energy and precision.)
Conductor Vladimir Jurowski is a bit older than Jansen, but still a sub-40 youngster, and has been leading the LPO for eight years. He carves a clean beat when he needs to (as in the rhythmically ambiguous Pintscher piece), but is no less comfortable supervising his well prepared orchestra with minimal dramatics. The Brahms Fourth Symphony is a repertoire warhorse that experienced orchestra players can rattle off while downloading Adele to their iPods. Jurowski conducted from the score, and instantly impressed a personal spin on the sighing phrase that opens the work, elongating it mournfully.
The Brahms 4th is famously monolithic, tragic in demeanor, railing heroically and lacking a Beethovian-like redemption. It is darker and more dramatic than the 2nd Symphony, which I heard a few weeks ago in Avery Fisher Hall when the Vienna Philharmonic visited. It might be unfair to compare the London Philharmonic to the Viennese, as the VPO is likely to appear on anyone's short list of greatest orchestras. And while the Londoners cannot match the sheen and unearthly accuracy of Vienna, Jurowski managed his resources, and the symphony's pacing, masterfully and to tremendous effect. Special notice should go to Jamie Martin, principal flutist, for his yearning, lyrical solo in the fourth movement.
The audience ate it up in big gulping spoonfuls, standing and creating a commotion for several extended bows. They shamed the jump-starters who streamed up the aisles, only to face the punishing early winter rain all the sooner.
UPDATE: See Anthony Tommasini's review in the NYTimes. He had a less favorable impression of the Brahms.
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