London Philharmonic/Jurowski Mischa Maisky – Kancheli, Yusupov & Silvestrov

Another Step
Cello Concerto [UK premiere]
Symphony No. 5 [UK public premiere]

Mischa Maisky (cello)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 April, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vladimir Jurowski. Photograph: Roman GontcharovVladimir Jurowski has programmed a range of music from the post-Shostakovich era since taking charge of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and this concert was a notable statement of his continuing intent.

Of the composers featured, only Giya Kancheli enjoys any profile in the UK though the impact made here by his symphonies during the mid-1980s has only fitfully been evident in his later work. The compact formal dimensions of Another Step (1992) are undeniably a factor in its success. There are the familiar elements – the unequivocal yet disconnected nature of ideas, the emphatic yet aloof nature of their juxtaposition, the tendency to dynamic extremes, and the ‘infiltration’ of seemingly populist elements off-stage and recorded – but the piece unfolds with a sureness of focus that admits of no contrivance. Whatever ‘step’ is being taken or contemplated is not stated, though might not the climactic homing-in on the opening motif from Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony (then 30 years old and commemorating a revolution 75 years before) offer a clue? The present performance, tautly shaped and powerfully realised by the LPO, certainly made any such speculation worthwhile.

Benjamin Yusupov is hardly oblique in the conception underlying his Cello Concerto (2006) – namely “… the story of an artist who fights, suffers and tries to find his own way of self-expression living in our terrifying world”. Thus while the first movement sets out such lofty intentions with a hesitancy not dissimilar to that of Kancheli, its successor’s conflation of waltz and the ‘Dies irae’ plainchant has a Schnittke-like sense of drama – as well as a fractious quality intensified in the third movement’s headlong confrontation of folk and popular melodies with a grating irony redolent of Shostakovich.

The problem is, everything here has already been said, and more persuasively, by these and other composers – thus making Yusupov’s would-be existential journey an all-too-predictable one. Nor does the more rarefied soundworld of the epilogue offer very much in the way of transcendence.

Mischa Maisky. ©Mat Hennek/DG Mischa Maisky (for whom the work was written) rendered it with his customary fervour and dedication, not to mention a fair amount of approximate intonation, while Jurowski once again proved himself to be an attentive and insightful accompanist. Overall, though, the ends largely failed to justify the means.

Perhaps its impact would have been greater had it not been followed by an undoubted masterpiece. Although widely praised and several times recorded, Valentin Silvestrov’s Fifth Symphony (1982) was here receiving a public premiere in this country. Which, however belatedly, is all to the good, as the work is a paradigm for his maturity: above all, in its concept of the ‘postlude’ as a means of sustained symphonic discourse without need for development per se. An evolution, then, of musical end-pieces imbued with a quality (though not necessarily a function) that is unmistakably symphonic.

Playing continuously, the nine main sections are overlapped so salient ideas echo and anticipate each other in a process as formally inevitable as it is cumulative in expression. There are three such ideas: an ominously chromatic gesture tapering off as if an explosion in slow motion; a potentially ‘endless melody’ whose Mahlerian resonance is less notable than its capacity for delayed resolution; and what are essentially arabesque-like gestures that emerge only to disappear against a static background as might vapour trails in the atmosphere. How these ideas interrelate is how this symphony evolves.

That it evolved so cohesively was down to Jurowski’s handling of what could easily be a diffuse, even direction-less score. At 42 minutes, his was an appreciably swifter interpretation than others, yet there was no sense of events being rushed or passed over; rather, those phases of development and reprise emerged naturally out of the work’s ongoing momentum – one whose evolution as a single and sustained sweep was amply but understatedly conveyed. The poise of the LPO’s response was fully in the spirit of music whose underlying pathos communicates with the deftest of expressive touches.

A pity the Kiev-based composer was unable to attend, but the presence of microphones should mean he will get to hear the performance, which would be a valuable release on the LPO’s label. Hopefully, too, Jurowski will programme further Silvestrov is his continuing exploration of post-Soviet music.

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