Desolation row: Shattering Shostakovich from Jurowski and CSO

Fri Apr 28, 2023 at 3:03 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Vladimir Jurowski conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 Thursday night. Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo

Vladimir Jurowski returned to town this week to lead his first Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts since 2010. His long hair may have turned from jet black to a distinguished silver in the interim 13 years since that debut, but the Russian conductor was no less in command Thursday night leading a riveting performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8.

Premiered in 1943 after the composer’s noisy but “heroic” “Leningrad” symphony, Shostakovich’s Eighth initially discomfited the Soviet cultural commissars, who were expecting another tub-thumping patriotic ode to victory over the German invaders. 

What they got was a sprawling 62-minute work dominated by a bleak opening movement that makes up nearly half the symphony. And while there are passing satiric moments in the ensuing four movements (the final three played without a break) the impact of that tragic opening is never quite dispelled, even as the symphony works its way to a hardly affirmative coda. As in so many of Shostakovich’s works, it’s hard not to feel that the Eighth is as much about the enemy within as without.

Jurowski is not a demonstrative podium presence, yet he showed complete mastery of this long, complex score, drawing bracing clarity and textured balances, even in the most massive and dissonant pages.

From the taut tutti cellos that open the symphony, Jurowski was in firm control, leading a driving, powerful performance that put across the vast dynamic range with jarring volume and immediacy. The mounting tension in the opening Adagio had a relentless inexorability, the conductor building the mechanized terror to massive grinding climaxes with shrieking high winds (two of the four flutists called to double on piccolo). Out of the ensuing desolation, comes one of Shostakovich’s most striking instrument-as-protagonist wind solos. If Scott Hostetler didn’t quite convey the vulnerability of this lone human voice in a malign wilderness Thursday night, he gave the extended English horn solo searching and sensitive expression.

There was little letup in the ensuing Allegretto, the galumphing march-like music’s parodistic edge, made nicely manifest by Jennifer Gunn’s stellar piccolo solo.

Jurowski took the third movement at a more measured pace than many, emphasizing the non troppo as much as the Allegro. Yet that tempo worked, making the music seem less like a breakout of exciting virtuosity than a grimly, dogged infernal machine. (The banal middle section almost seems like a private goof on Khachaturian.) Following his star turn last week in Petrushka, Esteban Batallan made his crazed trumpet solo register even with the bravura mitigated by the tempo.

Jurowski firmly pointed the lower strings’ passacaglia-like theme in the Largo, the ensuing variations floating by as if in a dream—none more memorable than David Cooper’s elegiac horn solo and Stephen Williamson’s unmoored clarinet.

The finale is notoriously difficult to pull off but Jurowski and the orchestra managed to do so—charting the Allegretto from an almost-affirmative conclusion that is beaten down, to a jokey little waltz, and finally to the serene final pages where some degree of internal solace is reached in a world gone mad.

Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony is far from a crowd-pleaser but the audience realized it was hearing a powerful, authoritative performance and held their applause after the hushed final notes until Jurowski lowered his arms.  The ovations brought Jurowski back for multiple curtain calls, and the conductor was generous in sharing the ovations with solo members of the orchestra, in one of the musicians’ finest outings this season.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major led off the evening, and the work’s harmonic unease and sobriety of expression made an apt precursor to the Shostakovich.

It’s a thankless task for any pianist to follow Daniil Trifonov, not least after his memorable Rachmaninoff last week on the same stage. But soloist Martin Helmchen effaced any lingering memory of his Russian colleague with a lithe and gracious Mozart performance.

Martin Helmchen performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 with the CSO Thursday night. Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo

K. 503 is not among Mozart’s more often-played concertos. The concerto is scored for larger forces than the composer usually employed in this genre (flute and pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani). With an expansive first movement, the profusion of themes is fecund even by Mozart’s standard, including what sounds like a pre-echo of the Marseillaise. Yet despite the surface lightness there is a restless shifting between the major and minor as if the musical center cannot hold.

Helmchen assayed the somber opening movement with boldly projected playing that suited the grandness of scale without sacrificing an essential intimacy and charm. In the Andante Helmchen conveyed the lyric elegance while underlining the melancholy shading. 

The Allegretto finale’s jocular main motif suggests a lighthearted children’s song yet even here the music keeps slipping into minor diversions. Helmchen encompassed the varied moods with easy facility and his fleet tempo and vivacity brought scintillating brilliance to the final bars, making a lively and eloquent case for one of Mozart’s most challenging concertos.

Jurowski’s direction of the extended introduction felt fractionally weighty even for this late Mozart work, but he and Helmchen largely proved simpatico partners.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Posted in Performances

9 Responses to “Desolation row: Shattering Shostakovich from Jurowski and CSO”

  1. Posted Apr 29, 2023 at 12:20 am by Howard C

    Agree with this review except I felt the Mozart Concerto piano solo playing tended to be too loud in volume (especially the 1st movement) and stylistically heavy.

    Any Shostakovich + CSO is a winning combination, and having Jurowski conduct amplifies the specialness of the occasion. His interpretation to this piece is immaculately sculpted. Really should not miss if you like Shostakovich symphonies.

    And people, you really need to get out and listen to these live CSO concerts! The gallery was only 10% occupied Friday night(!). When I was at a NY Phil concert the last week of March (Susanna Malkki, Petroushka), the seats were >90-95% occupied. I came back unharmed from tonight’s performance and there are enough police outside so it’s safe to attend these concerts!

  2. Posted Apr 29, 2023 at 8:27 am by david m novak

    I’m in complete agreement with the review. In addition, Jurowski illustrates perfectly why the CSO should not settle for a mediocrity like Thielemann.

  3. Posted Apr 29, 2023 at 4:22 pm by niloiv

    Friday attendance was quite poor, and so many latecomers that, without a short opening piece, performers had to wait for 2-3 min after first movement of the Mozart PC for everyone to find their seat.

    In my opinion the Shostakovich 8th has been one of the highlights of the season so far, but I guess it’s just a tough sell to follow up a week with Trifonov playing Rachmaninov

  4. Posted Apr 29, 2023 at 11:14 pm by Richard

    Marvelous balancing of “public” vs “private”, which is so important in Shostakovich. And really masterful “scaling down” in the final movement to the quiet, moving final pages of the score: we barely notice it! No sentimentality or false tears either.

    Concur with commenter #1 re Thursday: the house was only ⅓ full.

    Richard T.

  5. Posted Apr 30, 2023 at 6:39 pm by Jeff R

    Great show on Sat. House was about 2/3 full. Review describes my feeling. I would like to see Jurowski with the CSO again. They seemed to enjoy the interaction. Lots of smiles within the orchestra

  6. Posted Apr 30, 2023 at 8:32 pm by Marco Carvalho

    I’d only broaden the invitation from first commenter. If you don’t like Shostakovich, try it through a master execution like the CSO and Jurowski. It’s definitely worth it.

  7. Posted May 01, 2023 at 1:47 am by Alexander Platt

    Wow — the CSO is having one hell of a season, in this beauty-contest year! Looking forward to making Muti’s Rachmaninov 2 if I can.

  8. Posted May 01, 2023 at 8:50 am by Randy Wilson

    The Thursday concert was riveting, though maybe a little less so in the Mozart. The Shos performance was the best I’ve heard the piece played, with this orchestra’s massive forces sounding as well balanced as I’ve heard them in such a large scale and very often loud piece.

    Attendance was disappointing as many mentioned, with lots of potentially unfortunate reasons. That hall should have been filled to the rafters, but I was glad that those who did attend gave an ovation that reflected what a fantastic performance we’d just heard.

  9. Posted May 01, 2023 at 10:01 am by Ed

    I agree with all of the above comments. I’m a huge fan of #8, having heard many orchestras and conductors play the piece, but Saturday’s performance was maybe the best I’ve heard live. It was tight and focused, and the orchestra was clearly motivated by Jurowski’s vision of the piece.

    He should be under consideration for music director, or a regular guest conductor at least.

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