London Philharmonic/Jurowski in New York – Rachmaninov

The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor, Op.40
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Alexei Lubimov (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Gail Wein

Reviewed: 1 March, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Vladimir Jurowski. Photograph: Roman GontcharovA blustery late-winter Sunday in New York seemed an appropriate setting for this Rachmaninov program offered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall. The romantic Russian composer’s reputation for thick harmonies and brooding themes seemed to fit the desolation of the seemingly endless season. But despite the dark nature of the music, the audience left the hall with their spirits undoubtedly lifted.

The concert began with The Isle of the Dead, a work written in 1909 when the composer was in his 30s. Rachmaninov was inspired to compose the work after seeing a black-and-white reproduction of the painting of the same name by the German painter Arnold Böcklin. The painting shows the journey of the dead across River Styx into the underworld. Though Vladimir Jurowski could make the atmosphere of The Isle of the Dead no less dark, he led the orchestra in a moving performance of the work. Jurowski shaped the phrases so adeptly that one could feel the pull of the oars and the tide lapping against the boat as it glided across the water. In his hands, the work is almost Mahlerian in its depth, dense, with the slightest glimmer of hope like a ray of sunlight glinting through.

Rachmaninov completed Piano Concerto No.4 in 1926, his first composition since leaving Russia for the States in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. The premiere performance got a tepid reception, and the work – despite two revisions – has never caught on in the way that piano concertos 2 and 3 have. In this performance, Alexei Lubimov, well-known as a champion of contemporary music and an early music specialist, lacked strength and precision. Sometimes he seemed to be struggling with the orchestra for control rather than being a co-operative partner. In brighter moments, Lubimov was adept at bringing out the jazz inflection in Rachmaninov’s notes, and displayed a wonderfully flowing technique in many passages, particularly in the swan-like ripples at the end of the first movement.

The powerful opening of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances was full, clean and resolutely march-like. His last work, he had composed it with ballet in mind, but the choreographer died before they could collaborate. Still, the dance intent was apparent, especially in the center movement, which featured the spectacular brass section of the London Philharmonic. The players’ control was particularly evident in the incredibly soft-muted passages. The exquisite beauty of leader Peter Schoeman’s violin-playing was displayed in his lyrical solo passages, and left one wanting to hear more from him. This work is one of many in which Rachmaninov uses the requiem theme ‘Dies irae’ (The Isle of the Dead is another), but in the finale, it is practically bursting rather than funereal.

For a few hours on this chilly overcast day, Jurowski and the LPO were able to make a hall full of music-lovers toasty-warm with Rachmaninov’s music.

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