Jurowski and the LPO on peak form in An Alpine Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar, R. Strauss: Nicola Benedetti (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.10.2019. (CS)

Elgar – Violin Concerto in B minor Op.61
R. StraussAn Alpine Symphony Op.64

The massed ranks of violinists stretched to the far walls.  Woodwind groups in fives and sixes, not pairs, made one wonder whether one was seeing double.  The brass players nudged shoulders and brushed elbows at the rear stage-left, the long line of horn-players and trumpeters curving round to the very front of the stage.  The percussion players crammed their wind and thunder machines behind the first violinists, threatening to topple the organist over the lip of the stage.  Towering authoritatively, ten double basses formed an imposing column along the rear wall.

With scarcely a square inch of space on the Royal Festival Hall stage, we could only have been awaiting Strauss’s 1915 musical-memory of his teenage self’s mountain adventure, during which he and his fellow climbers got lost and were caught in a storm.  But, if Vladimir Jurowski had swelled the ranks of the London Philharmonic Orchestra beyond even Strauss’s gargantuan demands, then there was no sense of swagger or bombast about this performance of An Alpine Symphony.  The LPO released a live recording of their 2016 performance of the 50-minute tone poem-cum-symphony last year, on the orchestra’s own label, and in the Festival Hall the telling transparency and ‘good taste’ – the judicious expansiveness and ability to make the music sound ‘imposing but never overblown’ – that my fellow reviewers observed once again resulted in a performance which, while richly sumptuous when required, was most especially noteworthy for Jurowski’s discerning revelation of the inner workings of Strauss’s score.

Whether it was a distant cowbell, a brief cello solo or a graceful harp glissando, Jurowski ensured every detail contributed to the kaleidoscopic panorama.  The very precision of Strauss’s pictorialism – remember that boast that he could depict a knife and fork in music – seems custom-made for Jurowski’s own unwavering exactitude.  But, this was no mere picture-painting; there was poetry too.  When the vistas enlarged, the full, refined richness of the LPO strings, the bloom of the woodwind, and the warmth and precision of horns and brass summoned a Romantic grandeur.  Yet, while conjuring the sublime Jurowski himself cut a characteristically no-nonsense figure on the podium.  Only once, and my eyes may have deceived me, did Jurowski’s feet lose firm contact with the podium – and then just for a millisecond, as he whipped up the thunder and tempest before the descent.

The very scale of An Alpine Symphony seems to invite the scrutiny, and mastery, of Jurowski’s insightful architectural vision.  This was no leisurely stroll through the pines and peaks.  From the first, as the falling tendrils of night unfurled, darkly and sonorously, there was an exciting momentum, a muscularity and cleanness that suggested striving and vigour.  As the sun rose with the glistening glory of glockenspiel, harp and cymbals, I felt on the edge of my seat; the ascent was beginning, and the buoyancy of the strings conjured a sense of discovery.  Unceasingly the fresh sounds and sights came: the crisp bristling of the off-stage hunting horns; the rippling stream propelled onwards by the double basses’ firm, deep current; the cool, colourful splashes of the waterfall.

On, through the meadows and the mountain pasture, the mountain hikers pushed forward, never settling to indulge in the view: nature’s wealth, as disclosed by the orchestral clarity, was almost too much to take in.  Jurowski almost imperceptibly introduced a note of tension when the walkers take a wrong turn through the thicket and suffer the perils of the glacier, but they arrived at the summit to be greeted by a sumptuous glow that awe diminished to a quasi-silent shimmer of the strings’ trembling accompaniment to the oboe’s sublime vision.  Perhaps Jurowski might have allowed his players a little more self-indulgence during the reverie and elegy of the descending mists, but if he kept a tight rein on their emotions then this had the effect of instilling the calm before the storm with a spine-tingling suspense.  The LPO musicians positively relished the raging wind and downpour, and as night fell, Jurowski sustained the focus and firmness of the orchestral sound.  Though the sun waned, the epiphany was undiminished.

Before the interval, matching Jurowski for concentration and musical shrewdness, Nicola Benedetti gave an assured performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto.  As in Strauss’s symphony – but with rather fewer orchestral players – here there was appreciation of the grandeur of the 50-minute score, without sentimentalism: nobility not heroics.

Benedetti has been performing Elgar’s Concerto frequently of late and a capacity audience at the Royal Festival Hall suggested that there is great eagerness to hear her account.  Her performance was certainly one of seriousness and intellectual focus, allied with innate musicianship.  But, initially at least, Benedetti seemed a little tense, standing with her Gariel Stradivarius tucked neatly under her right arm, listening intently to the substantial orchestral introduction which Jurowski shaped with discipline – what one might describe as an Edwardian restraint, ideal for delineating the score’s contrapuntal complexities.

The soloist’s part rested on a low music-stand to her left, although Benedetti didn’t seem to pay much attention to it.  Yet, while her first entry emerged from the orchestral opening with focused authority, her playing felt a little too controlled, the phrasing lacking the sense of breadth that Elgar’s nobilmente marking and frequent tenuto instructions suggest.  The Allegro pushed forwards determinedly.  Benedetti’s bow action was strong and fluent, the line firm and evenly sustained, but energised with rhythmic bite and declamatory resolve.  At times the passagework felt a little too pressing and though the string-crossings were legato and clean, I felt that they did not really ‘sing’.  But, if I missed a certain relaxation then such easing came with the Andante where Benedetti’s high melodies shone, contrasting with the lower-lying passages which had an intensity which was slightly dusky, but very ‘human’.  She used her left hand very expressively, and Jurowski encouraged horns and brass to complement the soloist’s warmth.  Wistfulness can easily slip into mawkishness, but Benedetti closed the movement with dignified resignation.

The Allegro molto was purposeful.  When goaded by the brass Benedetti proved their equal for assertiveness and strength, but Jurowski judiciously drew down the orchestral blind as the cadenza approached.  Benedetti was a picture of poised precision during the gymnastic virtuosities and soloist and conductor drew on the energy of the cadenza’s arguments and tensions in the concluding section, where Benedetti finally seemed to unwind and play with greater freedom.

One senses that while she undoubtedly has all of the (many) notes under her fingers and a strong appreciation of the complex structure of this long concerto, Benedetti is enjoying the climb to towards relaxed familiarity with Elgar’s score.  To the Summit: so this concert was titled.  Jurowski and the LPO have been at the peak for a long time.

Claire Seymour

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