With their ongoing series this year, “Changing Faces: Stravinsky's Journey”, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski (and guest conductors) have come up with another innovatively planned series of programmes refreshing perceptions and airing neglected corners of the repertory. Deserving better attendance, this concert, odd glitches aside, was a largely showpiece affair – a world-class orchestra, motoring on its brilliance, under frequently characterful, consummate leadership.
Liadov's rarely heard three tone poems, dating from 1904 to 1909, made for an inspiring opener, colourful and atmospheric, Jurowski's tight clear beat ensuring crisp attack and, in the case of the flanking tableaux, ideally judged endings. Redolent of Mussorgsky, The Enchanted Lake has always been a special jewel of late-Romantic Russian imagination. Way back Svetlanov did magical things with its world. In Jurowski's hands it unfolded with profound, sonorous gravity, “the multitude of stars hovering over the mysteries of the deep” delicately etched, cold and remote yet luscious in their D-flat cosmos. Here was a valued opportunity to sample the mastery of the man who taught Prokofiev and had been a contender to write Diaghilev's Firebird. Just a shame about the smatter of applause between each piece.
Strong on melody, exchange and attack, Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto, premiered in Madrid in 1935, was a tour de force for both soloist and orchestra. Ray Chen, another of the Curtis Institute's Far Eastern alumni, has been on the international circuit for near enough a decade: he won the 2008 Yehudi Menuhin and 2009 Queen Elisabeth Competitions. Playing Joachim's 1715 Stradivarius, the instrument held high, projecting out to the audience, he dispatched a no-frills, no-nonsense performance, full of bite and temperament. He's an artist who finds instant subtexts and changes of nuance within a phrase or passage, while taking care never to lose the line in excesses of flowering or foliage. His tone is rich and ringing, his pizzicatos dramatised and centred (notably so in the first two movements, especially the splendidly orchestrated close of the second). He caught an innocent lyricism in the Romeo and Juliet-like diversions. More than once, I found myself thinking of Heifetz or Milstein (Oistrakh too). Jurowski, with an orchestra of reduced strings, relished the journey. This was music making of the highest level. Chen's encore, the 'Obsession' movement opening Ysaÿe's Second Sonata (Opus 27/2), with its imposingly thrown-off Bach and 'Dies irae' quotations, defined bravura and bravado, the level of accuracy and musical command at a premium.
With surtitles to guide the audience, the original 1911 version of Petrushka, was an upfront, Technicolor reading glowing in dramatis personae, detail and vitality, Catherine Edwards's unruffled piano contribution, Steinway D on full lid, reminding us viscerally that Stravinsky originally conceived this burlesque as a konzertstück for piano and orchestra. The many solos – flute, trumpet, violin for three – were brilliantly handled, free in their personality and rubato yet urgently placed within the four scenes. The off-stage snare and tenor drums riveted in their power yet hollow distance, the set pieces and dances, the “injured but loved” fairground instruments, half-frozen, glowed and shimmered in winter light, the sinister intrusions and climaxes took on a ferocious menace, at times raw and pulverising in their brutality. Two reservations apart – the unsettling haste of the ‘Dance of the Wet-Nurses’, and some awkwardly synchronised percussion at the start of the Moor's Room episode – this was overall a grand, very Russian performance, Jurowski in wiry control.