Symphony-Concerto in E minor, Op.125
Symphony No.6 in E flat minor, Op.23
Danjulo Ishizaka (cello)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 28 April, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Vladimir Jurowski’s exploration of musical hinterlands continued with a rare revival of Nikolai Myaskovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Although his music enjoyed a brief presence in the West during the decade following the First World War – Henry Wood giving several pieces at the Proms and, most particularly, Frederick Stock championing his music in Chicago during the 1920s – Myaskovsky’s star waned in comparison to that of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Recent years, however, have seen most of his major orchestral and instrumental works become available in recordings – not least the cycle of 27 symphonies that Evgeny Svetlanov strove mightily to get recorded prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This LPO concert saw Jurowski take on the most inclusive of those symphonies in what, if it was not its UK premiere, must have been the first performance in this country for many decades.
Composed during 1921-3, the Sixth Symphony brings to a head the soul-searching of Myaskovsky’s earlier output. Inspired to varying degrees by personal bereavement and cultural collapse, it is a late manifestation of that ‘darkness to light’ trajectory underpinning symphonic thinking over much of the preceding century. For all that, its forces and length are more modest than in almost any Mahler symphony: if Prokofiev indeed expressed concern as to its “75-minute” duration, Nikolai Golovanov’s 1924 premiere must have been a very different proposition from Jurowski’s hour-long performance.
After a precipitate rendering of its underlying ‘motto’, Jurowski tore through the first movement’s main theme – not so much relaxing in its conciliatory successor as allowing it to wind down to a point from where the development restored momentum through inventive play with the motto on its way to a climactic arrival of the reprise. Perhaps this could have intensified accordingly, yet there was no absence of sombre rumination in the coda. Nor were the outer sections of the scherzo lacking in fugitive energy, making way for then eventually overwhelming the beatific vistas of its central trio.
The performance was as it best (as, arguably, is the work) in the slow movement, whose alternation between the stoical and the yearning becomes fused into music that exuded great nobility of purpose – Jurowski mindful to point up the ambivalence that falls across the music in the brief but significant episodes with celesta to the fore. In its juxtaposition of increasingly hollow jubilation and encroaching resignation, the finale is much harder to bring off: while the choir’s intoning of Latin verse fell short of transcendence, Jurowski ensured that the final pages made for a serene and fulfilled apotheosis.
It helped that the London Philharmonic Orchestra was on generally excellent form, giving weight to Myaskovsky’s often-dense orchestral textures without obscuring their contrapuntal ingenuity or harmonic intricacy. This is a score that may have been rendered with a greater physical impact but can seldom, if ever, have conveyed greater lucidity or sense of purpose. If not quite the 15-minute ovation it apparently received on that first night almost 86 years ago, the work was warmly received on this occasion and it is to be hoped Jurowski’s account will find its way onto on the LPO’s own label.
Despite (or perhaps because of) their difference in age and temperament, Prokofiev and Myaskovsky enjoyed a career-long friendship – the latter apparently encouraging the former to revisit the Cello Concerto that became the Symphony-Concerto and, as such, one of Prokofiev’s last works. Although latterly taken up by many cellists, the presence of dedicatee Rostropovich hangs heavy over music to whose technical demands Danjulo Ishizaka only intermittently did justice. This is a piece that can all too easily lose focus – evident in a first movement in need of impetus by the close or the formal prolixity of its successor. Oddly enough, Ishizaka’s breaking a string galvanised the final stage of the latter, while the variations of the finale lacked nothing in motivation. Overall, Ishizaka had enough of a grasp of this unwieldy though appealing work to make one hope he will return to it in due course.