London Philharmonic/Vladimir Jurowski in New York – Mahler 5 – Hélène Grimaud plays Beethoven

Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.5

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 11 March, 2013
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Vladimir Jurowski. Photograph: Karen RobinsonWritten nearly one hundred years apart and spanning the Romantic era, these works by Beethoven and Mahler make a perfect pair for a concert program. Mahler opens his Fifth Symphony with a trumpet tattoo that sounds suspiciously like the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, or it might have been modeled upon the beginning of Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’!

Hélène Grimaud. Photograph: Mat HennekBeethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto retains the influence of Mozart yet shows a quite definite evolution in style, particularly in maintaining parity between soloist and orchestra, which Hélène Grimaud brought even farther into the nineteenth-century with mannerisms more appropriate for Chopin or Schumann. She lingered over some passages and leaned into lyrical phrases for emphasis, particularly in the slow movement, rendered sluggishly, her brooding bordering on a dirge. In the first movement, Grimaud seemed rather withdrawn, almost timid. She treated soft passages with extreme delicacy and rapid runs articulately, but never managed to capture the heroic character of the music. Her playing during the opening of finale was rather choppy, at least until the brass blew her away. She seemed rather disengaged meditating more often upon the music’s valleys rather than scaling its heights. Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra maintained their distance from complete engagement as well.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony fared no better. All but the Adagietto suffered from ennui that sapped the work of both its furious intensity and lighthearted frivolity. Strings sounded weak and pale, woodwinds lacked cohesion, and brass overpowered the rest of the orchestra in fortissimos. Jurowski functioned more like a stage manager than an interpreter, cueing in virtually every entrance – sometimes with inappropriate physical thrusts that the players were wise to ignore. He seemed to lack a vision of this work, being satisfied if the notes were played correctly and that there was some semblance of order.

Although he tried to generate some flexibility in the funeral-march theme in the first movement, his directions generated awkward rather than idiomatic expression, failing to imbue the music with any tragic passion or dramatic intensity, also lacking in the vehement second movement that was without tension, ferocity and verve. Jurowski’s approach lacked structural continuity, so that the chorale, the movement’s highpoint, happened out of nowhere. The rather extensive middle movement, with its evocation of the whirlwind of Viennese social life, can be a delightfully enjoyable experience, but Jurowski labored through it. The same lifeless approach resulted in a stilted, disengaging finale, which should provide the antidote to the catastrophe that pervades the first two movements, uplifting us to a glorious and redemptive conclusion, but this lackluster performance was short of tragedy, fierce anger and sheer joy.

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