United Kingdom Brahms, R. Strauss, Elgar: Yefim Bronfman (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 27.4.2019. (AS)
Brahms – Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
R. Strauss – Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28
Elgar – Falstaff: Symphonic Study in E minor, Op.68
During Vladimir Jurowski’s 11-year reign as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra he has given quite a lot of attention to British repertoire, but I don’t think it is betraying any great secret if I reveal that up till now he has disliked the music of Elgar. Whether it was his own decision finally to programme one of the composer’s works, or whether he was persuaded to do so by Elgarians in the LPO’s hierarchy I do not know, but it was a great surprise to see Falstaff listed among the works he was to perform this season. It was a bold choice, since this somewhat complex work is not an easy prospect for a conductor new to Elgar’s music. But the result was a triumph for all involved.
Jurowski is a great technician, and his reading was notable for its clarity of execution and definition of detail. It is not uncommon to hear a few loose ends in even the finest performances (even recordings) of this work, but here there were none. The LPO’s playing was transcendent. Generally speaking Jurowski chose tempi that were above the norm (certainly above those in the composer’s own 1931-32 recording), but this did not cause the score’s variety of moods to be glossed over: on the contrary, every episode was sharply drawn, and one was also aware more than usually of the work’s masterly structure, so clearly did Jurowski hold it together. When warm emotion was called for it was expressed, for instance in the tenderness of the two interludes. Highly disciplined playing did not inhibit the extrovert, rollicking aspects of the piece, which were charmingly and wittily expressed.
In this work and in the performance of the preceding Till Eulenspiegel surtitles were projected on to a screen above the orchestra. In the case of Falstaff the adventures of the eponymous hero were briefly noted at the relevant points in the score, as originally indicated in a note by Elgar, and this was helpful, but you could ignore them if you wished and concentrate your attention entirely on orchestra and conductor.
The qualities that Jurowski brought to Falstaff were similar to those he bestowed on Till Eulenspiegel, another score in which the adventures and demise of a colourful character are portrayed. It was a quite brilliant, characterful performance with sharp-edged playing from the LPO.
The first half of the concert had comprised the Second Piano Concerto of Brahms. The soloist, Yefim Bronfman, favoured a strong, direct approach to the first movement, the basic tempo in the upper reaches of the norm. It was an urgent, energetic reading, with little time for any expressive yielding. The second Allegro appassionato movement was also delivered straight from the shoulder, but in the Andante Bronfman relaxed to give a most beautifully expressive, soft-grained account of the music, with a shimmering tone quality – quietly rapt but with high-level concentration. The finale had a deliciously bouncy quality, fast again, and very exhilarating.