Vladimir Jurowski Makes a Good Case for an Early Bruckner Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Pintscher, Beethoven, Bruckner: Lars Vogt (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimer Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.11.2011 (GDn)

Matthias Pintscher: Towards Osiris
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5
Bruckner: Symphony No.1 (Linz version)

Loud complaints from the audience are becoming a regular feature of London Philharmonic concerts. A few weeks ago, their performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was disrupted by an dissatisfied patron leaving during the Adagio and complaining as he went. He seems to have set a dangerous precedent, for no sooner had Matthias Pintscher’s opening piece finished when a loud voice from the back of the hall shouted “What a load of rubbish.”

As it happens, he was completely wrong. Towards Osiris is an excellent work, showing one of today’s finest compositional talents at the very height of his powers. The work was commissioned as part of a series of new pieces designed to accompany Holst’s Planets Suite. Pintscher and Holst both excel in orchestral colour, and while their respective aesthetics are otherwise quite distinct, it is a fascinating exercise listening for echoes of Holst’s great work in Pintscher’s textures.

The work is structured around short punchy tuttis in an otherwise gentle orchestral texture. Pintscher creates some wonderfully complex sounds without having to rely on too much harmonic or textural density. He is great at gravelly or grating noises, usually led by the percussion, but never limited to them. At one point the texture reduces to an extrovert, bordering on comical, trumpet solo. There is a levity about it that you don’t usually associate with German composers. But the skilled construction, and the innovation in every phrase, is certainly in line with the best of what that country can produce.

In terms of pianists, Lars Vogt is the best Germany can produce. His performance of the ‘Emperor’ was filled with quintessentially German values. This was an efficient and directly communicative reading. Vogt is able to generate some real power at the keyboard, enough both to fill the Festival Hall and to compete with the LPO, who played the concerto with a full string section. That’s unusual; Beethoven usually gets quasi-chamber orchestra treatment with just three or four desks to a part. But Jurowski was obviously confident that Vogt could hold his own. Jurowski and Vogt were clearly on the same wavelength here, both intent on producing a big boned and passionate, but always clean and carefully articulated performance. The whole thing seemed very modern. So why then the period trumpets and timps? They seemed an inconvenience at best, and added little to this otherwise thoroughly symphonic reading.

The LPO has been spotlighting Bruckner throughout the season. Full credit to them for that. He is a composer of whom we hear too little in the UK, partly, I think, because every review of the Bruckner symphony performance in the British press goes on about how the music is long and boring. But the LPO is developing an impressive track record in Bruckner, and have recently performed his symphonies with some of today’s leading Brucknerians including Eschenbach, Vänskä and, of course, Jurowski himself.

The First Symphony is a tall order for any conductor, and any performance is going to work better in some places than in others. Jurowski knows how far he can push this music. In the first movement, he rarely tried to build the climaxes up to what he could manage in the later symphonies. On the other hand, the finale does offer a few opportunities really to push the boat out, and he never let any of those pass him by. One aspect of Jurowski’s Bruckner that really distinguishes his readings is his ability to make every movement ending work. Bruckner often ends a movement by building up to a climax and then just breaking off. It’s usually sudden, requiring the conductor to decide how to pace those final bars to give them the right feeling of conclusion. Somehow, Jurowski manages it every time, and in this symphony the first, third and fourth movements all pose this problem, but he managed to make each of those codas work.

Jurowksi found the most interesting music in the central movements, and these were what really made the performance elevated. The Adagio was lyrical and elegant, thanks in no small part to the LPO’s fine string section. Their precise ensemble and sophisticated tone allowed the music to sound far more mature than it actually is. And then in the Scherzo, Jurowski really went to town with the punchy rhythms and drama from every corner of the orchestra. Special mention should go to the trombone section, whose throaty tones and incisive accents brilliantly underpinned the tuttis here.

The First Symphony is never going to win a regular place in the repertoire, but as this evening’s performance demonstrated, it is far more than just a curiosity. And given that its performances are so few and far between, we should be thankful that this one was to such a high standard.

Gavin Dixon

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be availible to listen on demand until Tuesday 6 December.