War & Peace (2) – Russian National Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski – Vaughan Williams & Prokofiev

Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.6 in E minor
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Russian National Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 4 October, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The juxtaposition of these two wartime scores marked the central point of Vladimir Jurowski’s series “War & Peace”, part of Shell Classic International, and proved an enlightening and entirely apt pairing.

Vladimir Jurowski. Photograph: Roman GontcharovRalph Vaughan Williams completed his Sixth Symphony in 1947. One commentator labelled it as a “war symphony” only to be rebuked by the composer: “It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.” Speculation was rife too as to the significance of the strange pianissimo finale, perceived by many as a premonition of a World laid waste by atomic warfare. Once again the composer had no time for such conjecture. “I think we can get in words nearest to the substance of my last movement, in ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little Life is rounded by a sleep’.”

Given that the symphony has now somewhat fallen out of the repertory – it had one-hundred performances in the first two years of its existence, championed by Boult, Barbirolli and Stokowski – this was a thoroughly welcome and creditable reading from musicians to whom this music must have been completely unfamiliar. The two central movements – the menacingly eerie second was perfectly paced and the eruptive scherzo both came off particularly well. In the opening Allegro there was a sense of the music being carefully and precisely observed, albeit without the powerful abandon and momentous weight – that sense of “things fall apart, the centre will not hold” – which Barbirolli and Paavo Berglund brought to the piece. The elusive ‘Epilogue’ finale brought a pervasive Shostakovich-like bleakness, but for all the security of the string-playing there is otherworldliness to this music – as if one were passing through a veil into an unknown region – which was not fully plumbed. Those long winding lines need to float weightlessly independent of bar-lines, not easy at this tempo, and genuine pianissimos were in short supply.

Prokofiev’s Fifth by contrast was as refined and distinctive a performance as one could hope to hear. All too often – perhaps conscious that the symphony is generally thought of as Prokofiev’s major symphonic work – interpreters inflate the piece and it emerges disjointed and bombastic. By contrast Jurowski breathed it into Life with the very gentlest of touches, constantly reminding us of its balletic origins – Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother was seldom far away – and he adopted the most restrained dynamics throughout. This was sophisticated in the best sense of the word.

The result was that everything flowed seamlessly and naturally, with details all present and correct but never impeding the music’s forward momentum. The scherzo was taken at a relatively moderate tempo and allowed for some deliciously incisive string playing, whilst the slow movement’s lack of exaggeration – with now-elegantly-nuanced strings complemented by some outstanding wind solos, notably Olga Tomilova’s plangent oboe – was at once wholly unsentimental but deeply affecting, the final climax rammed home to enormous effect.

It was an irony that on this occasion Vaughan Williams’s work should have emerged so much the bleaker of the pairing whilst – rather like those fairy-tales where all ends well – Prokofiev’s luminous score should have sounded so untouched by the horrors of the wartime years. Perhaps the appalling events of the “Great Patriotic War” (as it is called in Russia) had been so mind-numblingly awful that Prokofiev only found his true but delayed musical reaction in the protracted howl of pain which is the Sixth Symphony.

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