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Vladimir Jurowski has enjoyed a close relationship with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for over a decade—first as principal guest conductor in 2003, than as principal conductor from 2007.
That artistic bond was manifest in a big way Saturday night at Orchestra Hall when the Russian conductor and his English orchestra came to town and delivered a dauntingly powerful account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8.
Completed in 1943, this dark, sprawling hour-long work is a “war symphony” to be sure, though, as often with Shostakovich, it seems motivated by the terrors within the Soviet regime as much as the enemy without.
The venerable orchestra is clearly in superb form under its current music director, who drew from it a bracing “Russian” sound—sharp and punchy brass and percussion and notably pungent woodwinds. Jurowski split the violins left and right, and it was immediately made clear from the forceful opening statement by cellos and basses that this conductor meant business.
The long opening movement had taut grip and an inexorable sense of accumulative drama. The devastation wrought by the war was manifest in the massive grinding climaxes, the screaming high winds aptly glassy and harsh. The third movement, said to be a biting portrait of Stalin, was all aggressive, driving vehemence with a fatuous quality incisively etched.
Jurowski and his players were at their finest in the challenge of the interlinked final movements. The passacaglia, with its slow, introspective expression, conveyed an apt unsettled reflection and the deceptively lightweight finale had a mordant irony and small sense of solace that felt just right.
Jurowski, who led an unforgettable Shostakovich Fourth Symphony with the Boston Symphony two years ago, is clearly one of the premier Shostakovich interpreters of our day. His firm yet flexible control, keen concentration and scrupulous balancing were virtually faultless, from the violins’ feather-light first entrance to the violent fury of the rafter-rattling chords, the conductor alive to every passing detail without ever losing the long view.
The only blot on the performance–and it’s a significant one–was the amateurish English horn solo at the end of the first movement: technically fallible, loud, literal and blandly delivered, the player completely missed the sense of a still, small human voice in the wilderness.
Otherwise, the orchestra covered themselves in glory as a unit and individually. Among the standouts were trumpeter Nicholas Betts, piccolo Clare Robson, clarinet James Burke, and flutist Juliette Bausor, who one hopes will apply for the CSO’s newly empty first chair.
Magnus Lindberg’s Chorale opened the program and made a fine calling card for the superb London musicians. Written in 2002 to precede a performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto, Chorale makes use of the same Bach theme mined by Berg in the concerto but to entirely different effect.
In seven minutes, the Finnish composer layers the theme through a series of episodes for large orchestra, from the crunched harmonics of the opening bars through discordant dissonances—the baleful trombones especially imposing—until the theme emerges with touching luminous simplicity in the strings. Jurowski led a boldly projected and sensitive performance.
Rachmaninoff’s not unfamiliar Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was the populist centerpiece of the evening. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet proved a nimble and polished soloist, his quicksilver touch well-suited to the scherzando style of the work. Fast tempos predominated yet, apart from a moment of overdone rubato in the famous 18th variation, the French pianist made a case for his approach, with Jurowski and the orchestra lending vivid, closely knit support.