Vladimir Jurowski leads a powerful performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.8 in Chicago

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Shostakovich: Martin Helmchen (piano), Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Symphony Center, Chicago, 28.4.2023. (JLZ)

Vladimir Jurowski conducts soloist Martin Helmchen and the CSO in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.25 © Nuccio DiNuzzo

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.25 in C major
Shostakovich – Symphony No.8 in C minor

In his return to Symphony Center, Vladimir Jurowski showed his finesse at the podium in a program that included two contrasting works. He was keen to bring out their individual stylistic elements effectively, and to elicit powerful music-making from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Likewise, pianist Martin Helmchen demonstrated his acumen as a soloist in a nuanced reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.25. Helmchen’s clear phrasing matched the orchestra’s as he worked with the conductor in executing this familiar work. The excitement came from their freshness in shaping the structure of the first movement. While the concerto itself was interrupted by a spate of latecomers who were seated after the first movement, Jurowski was keen to wait for people to be quiet before resuming the work. That pause set the tone for a thoughtful performance of the second movement.

Here the interpretation soared because of the lyricism that complemented the extroverted approach both soloist and conductor had shown to good effect in the first movement. It was as if two exemplary musicians were playing a duet they knew well. That synergy was key to the finale, which brought the first half of the program to its conclusion. Audience members lingered on their feet at the end of the work, as if anticipating an encore. That did not occur, but the response reflected the connection Helmchen and Jurowski had with the Chicago audience. (A similar interaction between the two is evident in a 2011 recording of Shostakovich’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, made with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.)

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the CSO © Nuccio DiNuzzo

In the second half of the program, the conductor led Shostakovich’s Symphony No.8 with consummate style. From the opening of the first movement, he gave this important score the shape it deserves. The extended string textures in the first part of the movement reflected the sensitive ensemble playing of the Chicago Symphony, and his attention to the balances made the performance even more striking.

Jurowski worked with the CSO in allowing various voices to enter and blend convincingly. His gestures were as effective as the subtleties in tempo that supported his directing. The first movement was masterful, and he exhibited the same virtuosity in the Scherzo that followed. For that movement, Shostakovich’s use of scherzo and march elements require the facility of a talented leader to bring out the details, and that was true here.

There was a brief pause before the structural arc of three attacca movements that form the final section of the work. The driving motor rhythms that occur in the toccata-like movement punctuate the textures and move the content forward. Under the Jurowski’s careful attention, the brass sonorities were full and rich without ever becoming strident. The burnished quality of the brass was matched by the precise voicings that characterize the woodwinds.

Likewise, the percussion supported the work with a range of dynamic levels and textural blends that reinforced the content. In bringing the last movement to its conclusion, Jurowski maintained the drive that set this performance apart. In contrast to the extroverted finale of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5, the Eighth’s subtle ending requires the orchestral mastery he displayed as he brought out the sonorities that give the movement its satisfactory closing. The performance was compelling in its technical execution and interpretive grace.

James L. Zychowicz

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