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Monday, March 11, 2013

Concert Review: The Fifth Beat

The London Philharmonic Orchestra plays Avery Fisher Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Vladimir Jurowski looking particularly excited.
Photo by Chris Chrisodoulou © 2012 Chris Chrisodolou. 
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is an important "statement" piece for any young conductor eager to cement his reputation as a maestro for the new millennium. So it makes sense that it was chosen by Vladimir Jurowski, the young Russian music director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra for Sunday’s matinee at Lincoln Center. Paired with it: the first Shostakovich Violin Concerto with soloist Vadim Repin. This was the first of two LPO concerts this week at Avery Fisher Hall.



Although the First ranks among the most popular of 20th century violin concertos, it is essentially a serious political work, full of coded protest against the oppressive censorship that Shostakovich endured at the hands of Soviet bureaucrats. The rising theme of the opening Nocturne emerged slowly in the double basses, with other low strings adding their voices. Mr. Repin gave steely performance to the eloquent solo part, playing with a slightly astringent tone that suited the seriousness of this music.


The demonic Scherzo, with its complex obbligato for the Stiff woodwinds, proved entertaining, as the solo violin danced to a madcap accompaniment. The Philharmonic winds were the real stars here, providing an ever shifting backdrop for the soloist to work against. Mr. Repin’s playing softened in the third movement, a long adagio leading to a massive solo cadenza, played with increasing warmth of tone as sarcasm turned to self reflection with the appearance of the composer’s musical signature: D-E flat-C-B. (The notes spell “D-S-C-H” in German notation for Dmitri Schostakowich.)

The final movement (labeled Burlesque) finds Shostakovich in the role of the reluctant hero in a fast gallop to the finish. This movement featured Mr. Repin and Mr. Jurowski working in close concert to produce a blazing performance. Egged on by timpani and brass, Mr Repin delivered a powerful, fiery finale, the sound of a composer breaking the chains of censorship and luxuriating in the power of orchestra playing at full blast.


The enthusiasm of that finale carried over into the Beethoven Fifth, which started on the wrong foot. An extra note (somewhere in the cellos or double basses) interjected itself into the famous opening phrase. “Ba-badah-ba-bum!” the orchestra bellowed, like an old vinyl record with a skip. But these are professionals, one the city of London’s three finest orchestras, and were quick to mount a comeback. Mr. Jurowski established an easy ebb and flow between the orchestra sections, slowing the pace on the quieter sections and generating fierce aggression in the climactic repeats.

For this symphony, the London players elected to use archaic “natural” trumpets,with modern valves or pistons replaced by 18th century brass “crooks.” This, along with the superb playing of the double reeds lent a vitality to the slow second movement that carried over to the rest of the symphony. The third opened with the mournful basses and cellos (together, this time) leading a funeral march. It was punctuated with the familiar four-beat rhythm, pounded out by brass and percussion.

The third and fourth movements are always played attacca. Mr. Jurowski unearthed some interesting textures to the quiet passage that bridges these two movements. For the first tutti phrase of the finale, those natural trumpets rang out once more. Conductor, ensemble and composer had collectively triumphed over adversity. Nothing, not even an embarrassing hiccup on the most famous of symphonic themes, could spoil the celebration.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.