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Tag: Vladimir Jurowski

A Hauntingly Relevant New Shostakovich Concert Recording From the London Philharmonic

Dmitri Shostakovich would find no small irony in that one of the most chilling recent recordings of his Symphony No. 11 would be released by a British orchestra during the (hopefully short) reign of the most brutally repressive regime in that nation’s history. The composer titled the symphony 1905, to commemorate the massacre of over two hundred unarmed Russian protestors by Tsarist militia in the St. Petersburg city square that year. In reality, it’s a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s genocide and possibly the martyrs of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary The gold standard for recent recordings remains the Mariinsky Orchestra’s 2012 performance under Valery Gergiev. But this one – by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and streaming at Spotify – is also stunningly vivid.

This undated live performance from London’s now-shuttered Royal Festival Hall doesn’t have quite the dynamic range of the Mariinsky recording, and if anything, it’s more hushed in places. But it’s hardly any less haunting. In Jurowski’s hands, this comes across as more of a series of grisly memories than any kind of linear narrative.

As the morose first movement slowly rises from a doomed predawn ambience, the foreshadowing leaves no doubt that these brave souls don’t have a prayer. Faintly hopeful twin flutes and a solemn solitary oboe give voice to variations on a sturdy worker’s song, which immediately grows more and more defeated over a grimly looming backdrop. Could this be an indictment of Stalin’s bastardization of Marxist ideology, maybe? Meanwhile, the sentries’ trumpets are lurking and don’t hesitate to make their presence known. Jurowski’s resoluteness in maintaining a vast, distant expanse behind them enhances the impact considerably.

Forces mass on each side as a standoff develops in the second movement, lustrously drifting and swirling strings against marching brass hitting a cruelly heroic peak. Are those furtive, muted pizzicato strings going to succeed? Or is the bronzed return of the suicidal opening theme the real portent here? By now, we know where all this is going. Shostakovich doesn’t even acknowledge Stalin by giving him as much as a simple tune: the massacre itself is all drums and cymbal crashes.

But this isn’t half over yet. The contrast between the almost inaudible, massed basses and violins behind the funereal chimes as the smoke clears (and those sentries with their trumpets, who just refuse to shut up) is viscerally intense. The third movement’s long dirge of a folk song, its muted, syncopated bassline and macabre low brass quietly remind the listener to grasp the consequences of this horror. Shostakovich wants us never to forget that fascists don’t just kill once: they do it again and again until we get rid of them.

A slightly different view emerges in the conclusion: amid its richly grim textures, some of these freedom fighters seem considerably more adrenalized and disciplined than what we’ve seen earlier on. In 2021, we will need such energy and discipline as we resist the enticements behind the lockdowners’ genocidal agenda: we can have our orchestras and concerts again, if only we take their needle of death. Obviously, if we do, there won’t be any orchestras left by then anyway.

Like many symphonic ensembles these days in parts of the world which haven’t yet broken free of the lockdown, the London Philharmonic have been releasing a steady stream of archival live recordings and this is one of their very best, reason to keep a close eye on what else they may have in the vault for us.

Transcendent, Harrowing Antifascist Shostakovich Concertos From Alina Ibragimova

Just a couple of months ago, violinist Alina Ibragimova made the front page here with a performance of a rare, lush French Romantic sonata by Louis Vierne. That’s right – in addition to his iconic organ symphonies, Vierne wrote gorgeous music for strings. That choice of obscure masterpiece is typical for her. How does she approach Shostakovich’s much better-known Violin Concertos No.1 and No. 2? Click onto Spotify if you have about forty minutes to spare away from multitasking: this is music you can’t turn away from.

What’s most notable about this record, performed with the Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, is that this is the first-ever recording to feature the blistering finale of the Concerto No. 1 as the composer originally wrote it. Legendary violinist David Oistrakh, premiering it in Russia in 1955, asked Shostakovich to give him a break and let the orchestra carry the twisted “burlesque” theme that opens the movement for the sake of a momentary breather before the fireworks begin again. The composer agreed to the change: it’s too bad he’s not here to hear Ibrigamova do justice to the original.

Getting there is a riveting, harrowing ride: Shostakovich’s empathy for his fellow citizens’ suffering under Stalin is as poignant as his caricaturish portrait of the regime is savage. In an era of seemingly daily assaults on our civil rights, this music could not be more relevant. Jurowski draws muted suspense from the low strings and a poignant moment from the bassoon as Ibragimova parses this distant nightmare scenario with a focused, cello-like midrange intensity and just the hint of a tremulous vibrato. Shostakovich wrote it in 1948 amid Stalin’s murderous assault on the Russian intelligentsia but kept it under wraps until seven years later; that choice may have saved his life.

The clarity of the sense of abandonment in the lament before starry harp enters the nightscape is absolutely shattering. The contrast between the chilly, close-harmonied, bronzed gleam of the orchestra and  Ibrigamova’s plaintive resonance as horror looms closer is just as chilling.

The bustle and whirl of the second movement here are just short of frantic, part savage parody of Soviet pageantry, part dance of death, Ibragimova’s violin whistling while the world implodes around her. The aching crescendo of the bittersweet third movement is visceral, her tight harmonies and astringent chords cutting through the smoke pulsing right behind her. Her echoing dynamics in the cruelly marching solo afterward are breathtaking, as is the gleefully ghoulish dance that wraps up this antifascist classic.

The 1967 Concerto No. 2 seems much like a reprise of its predecessor, through a glass, darkly. The ensemble open in the same brooding, otheworldly vein, Ibragimova channeling a plaintive insistence, the enemy always lurking at the door. Anxiety rises, spiced with a ruthlessly cynical quote or two from the 19th century, down to a slow, moody paraphrase of a country dance theme.

The second movement’s underlying pillowy gloom and the violin drifting high above make a sharp contrast. The goofy exchange between Ibragimova and a lone trombone as the third gets underway is priceless, setting the stage for more serious-minded jousting and eventually a bristling violin cadenza with more of a cynically cartoonish tinge than the ghastliness it echoes. Forget about Stalin for a minute: imagine the kind of hell that Brezhnev, or Krushchev, or Reagan could have unleashed if they’d had apparatchik Mike Bloomberg’s minions in charge of their “trace and track.”

Counterintuitive, Macabre Rachmaninoff?

The live recording of Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Rachmaninoiff’s legendary Symphony No. 1 is hardly a definitive performance…but the album’s opening number is, What a treat it was to discover their version of The Isle of the Dead, streaming at Spotify. It’s astonishingly energetic, dynamic and vivid. Most orchestras play it very close to the vest, as they might do with, say, Death and Transfiguration. Yet Jurowski’s take on it is a revelation, unfolding layer upon layer of color so often subsumed in moody armospherics in interpretations by other ensembles.

You can almost feel the strain and the reach of the ferryman’s oars as the low strings dig into the macabre opening theme, in restless 5/4 time. The swirl of the woodwinds as the sway rises to a stormy crescendo is just as sharply defined. Likewise, the descent to distant bass and a lone horn in the distance after the deluge subsides.

There’s great timbral richness as the brass joinis the cellos in the angst-ridden, stairstepping crescendo of the second movement. The subtle echo effects of cellos against a lone horn amid the waves are just as meticulously focused. Taken as an integral work, this is a clinic in how to build a haunting tableau from the simplest ideas: Twin Peaks, Russian style, 1909

For something approaching the ur-text of the Symphony No. 1, try Leonard Slatkin’s recording with the St. Louis Symphony. That one’s a confident tour of the young composer’s brash, sometimes uproariously funny symphonic debut  – which was played exactly once, viciously panned by the critics and only resurrected after the composer’s death. This one’s a little ragged in places – the chase scene in the first movement, for instance – and yet, there’s a certain charm and poignancy in that all-too-human frailty. And it’s an audacious piece of music: name another symphony where the composer uses a slur as a main theme! Diehard Rachmaninovians will probably want to hear this as a point of comparison, but there are other options for those seeking to relish it for the first time.