United States Anderson, Mozart, and Strauss: Alina Ibragimova (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 25.10.2014 (BJ)
Anderson: The Stations of the Sun
Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra
Young, slim, and charismatic, Vladimir Jurowski is a live wire on the podium. He commands a repertoire that ranges from notably graceful moulding of phrases with the left hand to positively explosive thrusts of the baton, while his beat is almost unfailingly clear and fluid. Nothing, you might think, could be more different from the Kapellmeister-ish podium demeanor and occasionally inspired but more often arid expressive restraint familiar to Philadelphia audiences from the days when Wolfgang Sawallisch was the orchestra’s music director.
So I found it surprising that Jurowski’s reading of Also sprach Zarathustra was impaired by touches of the same want of amplitude that sometimes characterized the late German maestro’s performances even of Strauss, of whose music he was a widely admired exponent. It was not a matter of numerically analyzable tempo so much as a sense that phrases were not allowed to expand to their full potential span, and, to put it more simply, that a number of things in the music happened too soon.
Do not misunderstand me: Jurowski’s positive qualities, allied with the superb artistry of a great orchestra playing these days at its best, ensured a compelling, often ravishing, and indeed thrilling realization of the score with the exception of its opening pages and its last few minutes. The more urgent and thrusting passages in the work were done with exemplary fervor, the Dance-Song, adorned by concertmaster David Kim’s sumptuous solo, was delightful, and the conductor’s re-seating of the orchestra in the classical format with first violins on his left, seconds on his right, and contra-basses lined up centrally at the back of the stage paid rich dividends in terms of overall sonority.
But that famous beginning, familiar to millions outside the usual ranks of concert-goers from its use on the sound-track of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, grew on this occasion too abruptly from the organ’s and the other bass instruments’ initial growl to a grand fortissimo, splendidly played though that was. As for the wonderful polytonal ending, with its opposition between C major symbolizing Nature or the Universe and B major symbolizing Humanity, an opposition Strauss left tantalizingly unresolved, the problem here lay not in timing but in dynamics. Certainly the composer’s demand for pianissimo tone in a high register from the flute family poses problems even for the finest players, but the far too corporeal sound Jurowski permitted at the close robbed it of any sense of evanescence. (While Sir Charles Mackerras’s recording comes as close to the indicated dynamics as any version I have heard, I must acknowledge that it is of course much easier to tweak dynamics in a recording than in live performance.)
Excitement was prime also at the start of the evening. Written for the 1998 season of the BBC’s Promenade Concerts by the then 31-year-old British composer Julian Anderson, The Stations of the Sun is a roughly 17-minute orchestral exploration of a year’s seasonal cycle, that being treated, the composer says, as background while “the music takes its own shape.” Brilliantly varied in texture and rhythm, and rich in such passages as a spectacular timpani break in which Don Liuzzi seemed to be having a high old time, the arc of the pice also embraces a sustained and serious string melody that seemed to me—and I have no idea whether Anderson would be happy or furious at the thought—to be a kind of descendent of a particularly beautiful passage in the finale of Michael Tippett’s Second Symphony.
Altogether The Stations of the Sun struck me as perhaps the finest new work of comparable scale I have heard since Christoph Eschenbach introduced Esa-Pekka Salonen’s slightly longer Insomnia with the orchestra back in 2005. (I should report, however, that there were dissident views to be detected in the hall—opinions of the piece differed depending on where the listener was seated. In my seat, Q 120, it came across as a winner, and I loved it, but in Q 119 my wife hated it.)
I have left discussion of Mozart’s D-major Violin Concerto, K. 218, for last, and really I don’t want to say much about it. Jurowski had the podium removed for this work, conducting it from stage level, with a suitably small string body, which seemed to promise a stylishly intimate performance. I have seen his older compatriot Gennady Rozhdestvensky do the same thing in Mozart—but in Rozhdestvensky’s case the stage set-up was matched by a concomitant reduction in size and speed of gesture, whereas Jurowski scarcely moderated his physical exuberance, and the result was a performance lacking not only in amplitude but in repose. And while Alina Ibragimova’s performance of the solo part, one or two moments of questionable intonation apart, was better than the inappropriately aggressive—indeed, painfully percussive—account I heard her give of the Beethoven concerto in Seattle last year, it offered little in the way of charm or expressive warmth.