Vladimir Jurowski returns to London with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra for their Proms debut

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 60 – Weill, Adès, Rachmaninoff: Kirill Gerstein (piano), Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 31.8.2023. (MBr)

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin © BBC/Andy Paradise

Weill – Kleine Dreigroschenmusik
Adès – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Rachmaninoff – Symphony No.3 in A minor

Music can be the most of cathartic of experiences. For your neurodivergent reviewer, arriving late for this BBC Prom – I narrowly missed getting there before the first work on the program – things could have been entirely turned upside down by the usual meltdown. However, perhaps it was a surprise – or perhaps it wasn’t, given my recent fascination with his magnificent Dante – that Thomas Adès’s compact, yet romantically virtuoso Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, should prove the perfumed, rather rosy experience that it was. But the Adès of today is much easier on the ear for me than when I first heard him in Berlin over twenty-five years ago.

Adès is himself a first-rate pianist and the glimpses of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff in his concerto clearly point to a work that – inside and out – is a masterpiece of originality; a lesser composer might have been more obviously indebted to history, but Adès is much cleverer than that. Adès has also eschewed that rather singular practice of his predecessors ­– he gave the premiere of his concerto to another pianist – Kirill Gerstein, the soloist for this performance with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under their principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski.

I have sometimes found Gerstein a bit of a spiky pianist – not quite a slammer like Denis Matsuev – but sometimes harder against the keys – and firmer against the pedals – than I would sometimes prefer. I am not sure if it is coincidental, but both Gerstein and Matsuev both enjoy a bit of jazz and I do find their similarities often outweigh their differences – but it is, of course, entirely a question of pianistic taste. Having said that, I found this performance of the Adès concerto riveting. Fearlessness was often the order of the twenty-odd minutes the concerto ran for.

The virtuosity certainly isn’t a one-way street. Adès has written a concerto that is richly textured and kaleidoscopic in its colours. Like many such pieces today – I think especially of the Jimmy López Bellido piano concerto, Ephemerae, which I reviewed in 2022 (review here) – it has a zestiness and drama in the orchestration that is laden with thrilling writing for timpani and percussion. Perhaps this is the mirror the keyboard, with its frequent dissonances, and briary, spinous writing reflects with such distinctiveness. The concerto both opens and ends at quite different ends of the percussive spectrum, but throughout the work Adès also charts unusual dichotomies. The jangling, bone-rattling trills on a xylophone clash with the high-shrill pitches from the woodwind, for example. If orchestral phrases can sometimes crack like broken glass, in the more lyrical music there is a clear chromaticism that only rarely breaks into colours that are slightly off-centre.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein, conductor Vladimir Jurowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin © BBC/Andy Paradise

The recording which Gerstein made of the world premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra felt rather relaxed in comparison to Jurowski’s more tension driven performance with his Berlin orchestra. If there was a preference here it was because it felt more edge-of-your seat, riskier – although the virtuosity from the orchestra was by no means less assured or impressive. There had been a meeting of minds in the slow, central movement – Gerstein finding poetry here and there, Jurowski drawing elegance from the Berlin strings – but this is quite a different sound from its other Berlin neighbour which has now grown to very tubby proportions. Similar to the Bellido concerto, the final movement can resemble the thrill of a Rammstein concert – more than a touch of turmoil, knotted chords and fistfuls of octaves from Gerstein with Jurowski turning the engine up to full gear on his terrific orchestra. As an encore Gerstein offered a transcription of a Rachmaninoff song (V Molchan’I Nochi Taynoy) that simply – and rather magically – disappeared into the arena like a slowly deflating balloon.

Vladimir Jurowski is one of the more missed of London’s previous music directors. That is especially the case when it comes to Russian music so it was good to hear him in Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony, the A minor. The musicologist, Robert Simpson, held a particularly critical – even negative – view of Rachmaninoff but although I am not as harsh as he is on the Second Symphony I do agree with his views on the D minor (the First) and the Third. Simpson does remain, I think, an outlier in thinking the First is Rachmaninoff’s symphonic masterpiece (although I, too, think this is the case). He is also right to suggest the Third is not a particularly compelling work – but not because it was a late work and Rachmaninoff’s creativity was declining; this would never explain the Symphonic Dances, perhaps the composer’s orchestral, if not absolute, masterpiece.

Jurowski has always been a convincing interpreter of the symphonies so there was little in this performance of the Third that came as a surprise. As distant as the Third is from the Second – some three decades separate them – there is also a distance of origin, too. There is a reticence of debt to Tchaikovsky or Borodin and more to the America which had influenced his Fourth Piano Concerto. Jurowski kept that opulence in the strings – with the caveat that the brass were handled with a gruffer kind of sentimentality. His handling of the percussion, too – the unusually un-Rachmaninoff xylophone was given just a hint of jazziness – was neatly done, especially when set against the brooding intensity of those Berlin strings.

The Adagio had some beautiful things in it. A gorgeously played solo violin, which was then taken up through a mist of violins against gleaming harp arpeggios. Jurowski coaxed the woodwind to weave through the strings – the harp sometimes just blending enough – although perhaps with a ghostly shadow – around them. The effect may have been more magical slightly further back in the hall; from too far left in the stalls it sounded slightly out of balance.

The Allegro always felt as if it was pushing towards its brilliant moment of triumph – amid that perpetually intervening Die Irae that has interlocked so many of Rachmaninoff’s works over the decades. The fugue – that climactic section of the movement that comes out of the shadows of the Dies Irae – was enormously powerful, Jurowski entirely trusting in his orchestra’s virtuosity to get him to that final allegro vivace ending. There had been no pandering to extremes of tempi here, no complicated emotional deviations – just straight Rachmaninoff, brilliant, focussed and superbly played.

The encore was pure opulence – Henry Wood’s transcription of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp minor. One could have heard it several times over to be honest.

And so to the first work on the program – Kurt Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik – which I am only able to review via the BBC broadcast. I sometimes think that German orchestras don’t make a very good choice for this music – rather than a reaction to Wagner (which Weill intended), it sometimes sounds a response to it (which is rather different). Radio is not necessarily a good medium to judge performances but there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that Jurowski got something of the full-bloodedness the music needs. But numbers like ‘Mack the Knife’ really need a voice and no amount of instrumental colour replaces it. Having said that, there was some wittiness from the woodwind, and nice turns from the banjo and harmonium even if the sleazy edges felt just a little too proper and urbane (has the flute ever sounded more elegant than it does here?). For me this was a curates egg – albeit a rather finely played one.

This was really a two-thirds concert for me – but enormously enjoyable for the majority I heard.

Marc Bridle

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