Jurowski makes admirable CSO debut yet Russian rarities offer mixed rewards

Fri Mar 26, 2010 at 10:55 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

“The Isle of the Dead” by Arnold Bocklin,

It’s not easy to devise a Russian program of little known Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. But Vladimir Jurowski managed to do just that with three relative rarifies presented in this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program that kept the warhorses firmly padlocked in the barn.

Rachmaninoff wrote few short orchestra works yet his Isle of the Dead is one of his finest efforts. A richly spun tone poem, famously inspired by Arnold Bocklin’s series of eerie paintings, the striking work musically reflects a boat bearing a solitary coffin across the River Styx. The composer himself conducted the work in 1909 with the ink still fresh on the score in his Chicago Symphony debut.

Vladimir Jurowski

 Making his own CSO bow, Jurowski took a somewhat revisionist approach, adopting speeds faster than most Russians—but not Rachmaninoff—and shearing off much of the accumulated weight and rhetoric. Yet there was no lack of atmosphere or punch in this lean, concentrated performance with climaxes resplendent and vividly characterized winds and brass, the usual fallible principal horn playing apart.

 The evening’s centerpiece was Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds. The style is reflective of Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical period, with passing glances at Russian Romantic tropes as if viewed through a refracted lens.

Peter Serkin

No great depths are explored in Stravinsky’s spiky showpiece, but having Peter Serkin—our leading Stravinsky pianist—as protagonist, was pure pleasure. The soloist brought a simple eloquence to the Largo’s spare main theme and Serkin’s excitable dynamism was fully in synch with the motoric outer movements’ astringent joie de vivre. The pianist was at his finest in the bravura finale, throwing off the coda’s punchline in style. Apart from more shaky moments from the first horn, the winds and brass (and double-basses) provided tight, stellar backing under Jurowski’s direction.

Did any great composer of the 20th century write as much bad music as Serge Prokofiev? When he was on auto-pilot, Prokofiev’s music regularly descended into a slick, noisy soullessness.  As Shostakovich reportedly observed (in Solomon Volkov’s Testimony) “Prokofiev too often sacrificed essential things for a flashy effect.”

 That trenchant comment encapsulizes Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4 performed Thursday, a work in which musical value is in roughly indirect proportion to volume.  Substantially revised by the composer nearly two decades after its unsuccessful premiere, the Fourth draws heavily on Prokofiev’s ballet The Prodigal Son, stringing together some disparate ideas that were not very inspired in the first place.

The result is a noisy cynical morass of overscored effects, sounding like a cross between a second-rate ballet—where in fact much of the material originated—and a third-rate Soviet film score. Even the lyrical theme of the Andante—the one interesting motif—comes across as calculated and superficial.

Neeme Jarvi—-an experienced hand at selling overlooked music—-couldn’t make a convincing case for this mishmash 23 years ago at its only previous CSO performance, and Jurowski had no better success with the revised version Thursday night.

To be sure, the gifted young Russian drew gleaming, often magnificent playing from the musicians—with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal clarinet Ricardo Morales and Pittsburgh Symphony tuba Craig Knox sitting in as guests.

But to what end, with such an empty score as this? With all the terrific 20th-century American music that continues to be neglected, perhaps it’s time to start exploring some of our own undervalued legacy. David Diamond’s wartime symphonies would be a good place to start.

 The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. http://cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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