The London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Vladimir Jurowski, visited Lincoln Center this week with solid success. The forty-year-old Russian conductor brought with him two soloists: the Russian violinist Vadim Repin (March 10) and French pianist Hélène Grimaud (March 11.)
Forty-one-year-old Repin is one of the busiest and most popular violinists on the world's stages -- but I never really liked him, despite hearing him perform with Valery Gergiev in Russia several times. His Sibelius Violin Concerto had struck me as technically perfect but cold and detached, and I always regarded him as one of those uninteresting Russian virtuosos (of which there are many, especially amongst pianists.)
I'm here to eat crow -- I was wrong about Repin. He started out the first movement of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 with a sound that was heavy without being loud. The solo melody pretty much goes on and on in the first movement, without much of a change in tempo or rhythm. It takes a very stoic and good violinist to be able to pull this off without lapsing into a boring drone or resorting to trying to shake things up by changing the tone or giving the music a more romantic or dramatic flair, both of which would be out of place. The most remarkable thing about Repin is how unwaveringly and unflinchingly he can pull music through from the beginning to end. Not only does he not turn a hair even in the most intensely difficult passages, his music inexorably flows forward, even when the music itself seems lost in vast space. There are many different qualities to a wonderful musician, but I've never known any with this kind of pulling power.
In the stately Passacaglia (3rd movement) Repin played with an incredibly strong sound. It was one of those moments when the sheer power of a singer's voice, or an orchestra's forceful sound, or, in this case, the intensity of Repin's violin, hits you viscerally. It's the physical thrill of being overwhelmed by something strong beyond your expectations, and the awe one feels at the musician that creates it. The cadenza, where the soloist plays alone without orchestral accompaniment, was as impressive as anything that preceded it -- even without a full orchestra to enhance the effect, Repin created a thrilling impact and barreled into the Burlesque (4th movement) full force. He went through the Burlesque at a very smart clip without missing a single note or sharp accent. Despite the fast tempo, he did not sound rushed at all -- everything was flawlessly distinct and perfectly executed, and he made it to the end without the slightest trace of fatigue; physical or mental. It was a rollercoaster ride of a performance -- thrilling and a bit scary, but you feel secure in the knowledge that you will get to the end safely.
For the second half, Jurowski and his orchestra played Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. Jurowski is a very sharp conductor, standing rigidly straight and giving very precise indications to his ensemble. He played a very severe pared-down Beethoven (not unlike the most common portraits you see of him, being all formidable and strict) without much of the composer's warmth, grace and joy. Even in the grand and imposing Fifth Symphony, you cannot deny that there is joy there.
Despite my disagreement with Jurowski's take on Beethoven, I still would say he is one of the most promising conductors to come out of Russia after Gergiev. Born into a conducting family (his father Mikhail is a conductor, as is his brother Dmitri) in Moscow, he moved with his family to Germany when he was a teenager, completing his musical education there, but he still has ties to Russia. In October 2011 he was appointed principal conductor of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation (commonly known as GASO) after the orchestra musicians petitioned to have their chief conductor Mark Gorenshtein removed. I have not yet had a chance to hear how the GASO plays under Jurowski's leadership, but I believe he has the skills to make it work. Jurowski is quite intellectual, he has a very good grasp of both the music and the orchestra, and little seems to get by him. While he does not seem like a very inspired or inspiring genius-type, he is very concrete in what he wants, and can get it from the orchestra.
The second day started off with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.4 with Grimaud as soloist. I have not been particularly impressed by anything I heard from her the past few years, and this was no different. She has a very hard-wristed way of playing, resulting in a sound that may be loud, but does not resonate. Her sound sinks rather than soars. Perhaps to make up for the lack of resonance, she sometimes uses the pedal excessively, but that just results in a muddied watery sound -- anyone who plays the piano can tell you that that is no solution to the problem. She also plays chiefly from the elbows down, without her using whole body. That, too, is not good for a full, rich resonance.
Her hard tones may be good for some things (maybe) but not for Beethoven's deep warmth and tenderness in his Fourth Concerto. Strangely enough, the orchestra also played with a rather brusque sound, especially in the 2nd movement, where it was decidedly not called for. Grimaud, on the other hand, sounded like she was playing Franck. Instead of pensive introspection, she highlighted (melo)dramatic effect where there was none.
Mahler's Fifth Symphony for the second half was much more enjoyable, with a truly gorgeous brass section. While Jurowski did not accentuate the ominous undertones and the obsessive character of the repeated motifs, it was a wild, tumultuous, passionate Mahler. Jurowski was perfectly in control of the orchestra and every phrase they played. While I feel that Mahler is the music of excess, the music where boundaries are broken, Jurowski's smart performance was great to listen to. The third movement, in particular, struck me -- of the five movements, I usually find the middle one to be the most sprawling and even a little aimless (especially compared to the testosterone-filled first two movements) but Jurowski painted a pretty fascinating picture. With great attention to detail, he played in an unhurried tempo (for which I admire him - people always end up playing faster when they can't find something interesting to say) and brought out weird nuances in the waltz, lots of odd fantastic details and all in all it was very original.
Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 (part 1)
Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 (part 2)
Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 (part 3)
Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 (part 4)