Five Fragments, Op.42
Piano Concerto in G
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43
Alexander Toradze (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 7 March, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
Vladimir Jurowski chose to juxtapose a pair of works by Shostakovich written within a year of each other — one a distillation of his adventurous style, the other a masterwork that conveyed his career into a bruising collision with the Soviet state — with Ravel’s masterful, witty piano concerto.
Shostakovich’s Five Fragments for small orchestra last less than ten minutes in total duration, and even with a modest-sized orchestra are thinly scored in a manner reminiscent of late Webern. The similarity, however, stops there. Jurowski opted to perform the pieces out of order, beginning with the fourth, a contrapuntal pastorale for three woodwinds that bears portents of the sardonic fugues of the Opus 87 Preludes and Fugues for piano. The second in original order followed, a spiky march that mixes early Soviet musical style with Shostakovich’s wry dissonances. The first Fragment followed, a moderato for winds that seemed at moments to ape Prokofiev and Stravinsky in its rhythmic impetus, and the fifth’s ‘street fiddle’ sound was a reminder that Shostakovich, like Mahler, could draw masterfully on ‘everyday’ musical sounds. The third piece, for strings is the most thickly scored, and is exemplary of Shostakovich’s harmonic grammar in its most raw and direct form. Jurowski brought plenty of individual character to each of the disparate movements; in fact, the work almost comes across as a concentrated musical manifesto and calling-card for Shostakovich, and while it was composed before his first and most personally punishing confrontation with the Soviet state’s bureaucracy, it contains striking previews of the music he would be writing decades later.
Pianist Alexander Toradze is a favorite of New York pianophiles, and his approach to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is decidedly outside of the consensus. Most interesting was his approach to the second movement, which was played in what felt like two enormously long phrases as Toradze slowly unfolded the musical line, supported with remarkable control from Jurowski and the LPO, and in particular the small but rich-sounding string section. The slow tempo seemed almost inexorable and inevitable, which strongly contrasted with the sharply-etched rhythms both soloist and orchestra brought to the outer movements. The opening movement sounded more often like Prokofiev than Ravel, with Jurowski and Toradze putting plenty of muscle behind the rhythm, and the finale was played with enormous virtuoso panache – and a risky but successful pushing of the tempo in the coda. As a whole, I’m certain it was not what Ravel had in mind – there was not very much in the way of subtlety or charm – but it was enormously entertaining. A replay of the finale was offered as an encore.
Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was written in 1936 as the composer came under attack from the Soviet artistic establishment for his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”. Shostakovich withdrew the work during rehearsals by the Leningrad Philharmonic that year, suppressing the work for 25 years. The reasons for the withdrawal were at least in part political, though the latest research suggests that the manager of the Leningrad Philharmonic may have made the decision to cancel the rehearsal and performance of the work.
Last season, Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony gave a performance of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony that was dazzling in its virtuoso execution – but disappointingly bland and critical. In the case of the present performance, Dmitri Shostakovich, and not just the notes, was decidedly present and accounted for as Jurowski navigated the sprawling, daunting first movement, which unfolds in a series of seemingly disparate episodes unified by musical themes that are in constant transformation. The movement reaches a telling climax in the symphony’s most difficult passage which commences with daunting prestissimo fugato music for the strings. Here the London Philharmonic was fully the equal of the Chicago Symphony, but with a significant added factor – the music sounded properly frenzied and terrifying.
The inner movement provided a false respite from the whirlwind of the first, with the haunting waltz rhythms and balletic wind music that carry an undercurrent of peril, unwinding into a final, striking toccata-like waltz for percussion. The finale opens with a dirge that seemed from Jurowski simultaneously reminiscent of Mahler and Prokofiev at the outset, triggering a musical meditation that builds to one of the loudest climaxes in the symphonic canon. Yes, it sounded shrill and unpleasant – but I have yet to hear anything at this dynamic extreme in Avery Fisher Hall that sounds the slightest bit pleasing. If anything, the ear-splittingly loud oration had better balance and detail than Haitink and the Chicago SO achieved in Carnegie Hall. The music builds down with mirror-image inevitability, the final music in the horn, flute, celesta and lower strings dissolving into mysterious silence. The Soviet Union may have died two decades ago, but Jurowski resurrected ghosts of its pre-war horrors in his characterful and strikingly coherent approach to this outsize work – and while the big virtuoso passages were impressive, the same can be said about the sardonic, ironic and menacing character which the players brought to material that mimicked popular and martial music.