Jurowski and the LPO unite for a typically enterprising programme subtitled ‘War and Peace’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ustvolskaya, Hindemith, and Prokofiev: Gil Shaham (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.4.2023. (MB)

Vladimir Jurowski conducts violinist Gil Shaham and the LPO © LPO

Galina Ustvolskaya – Symphonic Poem No.1
Hindemith – Violin Concerto
Prokofiev – Symphony No.6 in E-flat minor

The London Philharmonic Orchestra welcomed back Vladimir Jurowski, former Principal Conductor, now Conductor Emeritus, for a typically enterprising programme of mid-twentieth century works subtitled ‘War and Peace’, executed superbly and, in a broader sense, performed just as well. First was Galina Ustvolskaya’s 1958 Symphonic Poem No.1, a strange work: in many ways compelling, if at its close perhaps falling a little way short of coherence (at least to my ears). It was a splendid opportunity to hear the piece, though, and difficult to imagine a contemporary performance bettering this. Its dark, bleak opening, low cellos and basses, high woodwind, doubtless reminds many of Shostakovich, though for me it sounded more genuine, less overtly manipulative. The way it built, both as work and performance, likewise had much in common with Ustvolskaya’s teacher, though unlike him, its harmonies became the more surprising the more closely one listened — or tuned in. There were similar enigmas, slightly zany marching and cartoonish rejoicing offering obvious examples, but its lack of screaming was welcome. The greatest enigma of all lay for me in the ‘late-Romantic’ echoes of its closing section. Presumably they had their own rationale, but for now at least they eluded me. It was never less, though, than intriguing.

Gil Shaham joined the orchestra for Hindemith’s 1939 Violin Concerto: like much of Hindemith’s music – everything other than the Weber Metamorphosis? – heard far less often than it might be. I am not sure, indeed, that I have ever heard it in concert. There is, as might be expected, an easier, less problematic mastery here, reflected in the urgent, directed unease with which the first movement opened, craftsmanship and only that winningly celebrated. It lies within the orbit of Mathis der Maler, no doubt, and is certainly none the worse for that. Shaham’s violin line, here and throughout, offered a fine thread, strong and flexible, to follow the work’s narrative; we were left in no doubt from Shaham and Jurowski as to the consequentiality of melodies and harmonies alike. Cooler, semi-Stravinskian woodwind – though arguably Hindemith got there first in the Twenties – formed the bedrock for a more intense solo lyricism in the slow movement. The orchestral climax offered a veritable post-Mathis whirlwind, its economy worthy of Richard Strauss and even Mahler. Invention and incident were relished in the finale, defiant without a hint of grimacing. Shaham relaxed where required, bending time and line without disruption, his cadenza highlighting yet also typical of his rich, focused playing. The encore (a new Scott Wheeler work) was not really for me; I shall leave it at that. The concerto certainly was.

The second half was given over to an outstanding performance of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony from the LPO and Jurowski. Precision and, as ever, firm direction were key to realisation of the ambiguities of the opening to the first movement. Prokofiev’s strange doublings, such as cor anglais and bassoon, really told: no massaging here. And if it seemed as if this would be a somewhat foursquare reading – if that makes any sense at all for a movement in compound duple time! – Jurowski’s trademark formalism proved compelling on its own terms. A strong emphasis on the responsorial qualities to Prokofiev’s writing and, again, to the surprising hints of Stravinsky teased out in the woodwind writing, lent an air of neoclassicism not at all at odds with darker impulses. A development climax of great power and unnervingly spectral recapitulation suggested the ‘peace’ of 1946 was at best provisional.

Jurowski screwed up the tension just right at the opening of the slow movement, the long release equally well judged. Fullness of tone and general excellence of playing helped make this a match for any performance, live or recorded, I have heard, Mravinsky included (albeit very different). It was lugubrious yet still full of spark, debris from The Love for Three Oranges sublimated in the arduous experience of wartime years and uneasy peace. It was highly dramatic too: more reminiscent of wordless opera than ballet, occasional shards of Cinderella moonlight, harp and all, notwithstanding.

Taken faster than I can otherwise recall, the finale and its speed, allied to unremitting tightness of control imparted new, if quasi-automated life to Prokofiev’s motor rhythms of old, yet also ultimately extended beyond them. Jurowski penetrated to the distinctive heart of Prokofiev’s writing here, engaged in a dance to death, or some other fate, of Soviet marionettes come briefly alive. It was as Mahlerian in spirit as Prokofiev gets. Sharp on detail – how the double basses dug into their strings in counterpoint with splendidly idiomatic brass – it led us to a veil of almost-final darkness, chilling rather than protective, which, when lifted, revealed something terrible indeed.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment