Jurowski disappoints with the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Mozart, Messaien and Brahms: Tonhalle Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Roger Muraro (piano), Tonhalle, Zurich 16.3.2012 (JR)

:  Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”)
:   Oiseaux exotiques
:  Symphony No. 4

Vladimir Jurowski is not a conductor much known in Zurich and on this evidence I fear he will not be invited back in a hurry, unless perhaps he brings Russian music.

photo courtesy of the Tonhalle Orchestra

The evening commenced with a performance of Messaien’s Oiseaux Exotiques. Although it contains some traits of the composer’s more popular tuneful styles, such as heard in Turangalila, the work’s shape and themes are difficult to dissect, given that it attempts to reflect harmonious birdsong. Messaien was an avid ornothologist in his early days as a composer and noted down hundreds of differing birdsongs.

The work does not attempt to simply reproduce birdsong but rather is an exploration of those sounds and rhythms. Songbirds, however, succeed more often to enchant the ear.  Quite where the loud gongs and tam tam fit into this avian sound world I do not know. The pianist was Roger Muraro, who studied with Yvonne Loriod, Messaien’s second wife. I cannot fault his technique. Although the work improves – to my ear – close to the end, it contrived to leave me cold.

For the Mozart symphony (no. 38), Jurowski employed a sensibly slimmed-down complement of strings, but this was otherwise a modern performance in all senses.  Although there was much to admire, somehow it all failed to gel. The Tonhalle Orchestra were their usual elegant self, sparkling strings, crisp woodwind, thwacking timpani. On the plus side, there was plenty of muscular and youthful energy in the outer movements. The andante was elegant and poised; the presto could not have been taken any faster. As a whole, however, the interpretation failed to convince: it was too breathless. Jurowski has had this work in his repertoire for some years, but I felt he has little that is new to say about it.

The opening of Brahms Fourth Symphony boded well, but the performance was too hard-driven, tension and sheer force being all too often Jurowski’s watchwords. This was Brahms with more than a Russian touch. There was high voltage which would have suited Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky well, but for late Brahms a general lack of warm Germanic glow. The fast speeds led to some ensemble problems in the orchestra.

The slow movement was the most successful: relaxed and ardent in turn, it positively blossomed. The scherzo, on the other hand, was unremitting, with disturbing extremes of tempi. It was full of passion, but no suggestion of joy. The finale had weight, especially through Jurowski’s placing of the double basses across the back of the stage between brass and organ, but was often just too loud for this hall’s acoustic. Before the final note sounded, there was a solitary cheer from a Jurowski fan, who evidently likes his Brahms fiery. For the rest, used to more comfortable interpretations of central European repertoire, the reception was no more than polite.


John Rhodes