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Sparkling Soloists in Stravinsky Series: two concerts with Vladimir Jurowski

Vladimir Jurowski. Credits: Alex Damain

LPO/Jurowski, with Leif Ove Andsnes (18 April 2018) and Gil Shaham (21 April 2018)

The Stravinsky 'Changing Faces' series continued last week with two brilliant concerts which had different components, but shared one thing in common: two incredible soloists joined Vladimir Jurowski for two nights when he was conducting London Philharmonic Orchestra before the long break he has to take due to other commissions. Another thing that two evenings shared was the presence of a special genre of works: dedications to Igor Stravinsky – in both concerts. The first one (on 18th April) actually had this genre in a very interesting concert preceding the evening one (and these wonderful free events are another feature of LPO series). Foyle Future Firsts ensemble performed a whole collections of canons and epitaphs dedicated to or in memoriam for Stravinsky. There was a Canon for 3 by Elliott Carter, ‘Autre fois’ (Berceuse canonique) by Luciano Berio, Canon from Edison Denisov and a very interesting piece using the text from Borodin’s Prince Igor – ‘Fürst Igor, Strawinsky’ by Mauricio Kagel performed by bass Timothy Edlin. A very unusual variety of short works from composers of 20th century showing how deep personal and professional influence of Stravinsky was on many composers.

The concert on 21st April had in fact the whole first half dedicated to similar kind of memorial works, including one from Stravinsky himself. It started with Yuri Falik’s ‘Elegaic Music in memory of Igor Stravinsky’ that featured four trombones positioned behind a circle of string musicians. Jurowski led this piece solemnly, slowly, as though the musicians were conspirators in a closed society or indeed gathered to remember a long lost friend. It was a slow fight between life and death, reminding one of Tolstoy’s novella ‘Death of Ivan Ilyich’, with the presence of most important forces of existence palpable, physical, transposed to sighs, interjections and slow-burning defiant gestures from musical instruments. It was then followed by a world premiere of a piece by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg (who was in presence) with a name ‘Mantra-Elegy (Homage to Stravinsky)’ that defines its genre but also plays anticipates a slow transformation within the piece. Hillborg cleverly plays with quotes from ‘The Rite of Spring’, while keeping the audiences’ attention with climactic passages where the whole orchestra joins in what sounds like one sound and where indeed some collective meditation could be made through the listening process. And then another work followed – a three-part Ode by Stravinsky himself, that was written in 1943 in honour of Natalie, the deceased wife of the conductor Serge Koussevitsky. The three parts (Eulogy, Eclogue and Epitaph) are very different in style and in a way it is unusual to see them united under one ‘Ode’, but may for for the composer it was a celebration of a human life (very befittingly, he revisited his unfinished music for Welles’ ‘Jane Eyre’) with its beginning in Eulogy, most active part in Eclogue and the dissonances and moments of bitonality present in Epitaph.

Leif Ove Andsnes

But it was also magnificent choice of soloists that made these two evenings truly unforgettable. On 18th April 2018 it was Leif Ove Andsnes who joined Vladimir Jurowski and LPO to play a piece that could indeed be considered as a Piano Concerto, but with Debussy who was always very vague about the genres of his works, got a name of Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. It was played in an edition incorporating Debussy’s revisions which was published 50 years after his death, in 1968. Leif Ove Andsnes is one of my favoutite pianists since the time I moved to UK and was able to listen to recitals of international performers. He has the combination of intellectualism, calm, deep emotionality and attentiveness to detail combined with his own specific sound that it is always an unbelievable pleasure to hear him perform both during recitals and with an orchestra. Debussy’s ‘Fantaisie’ required exactly this type of a pianist for this piece, with his continious attention to conductor and other colleagues in the orchestra, with his sound floating not above, not below, but sort of in-between the orchestral sounds and sounding almost like an improvisation sometimes, and sometimes like an engraving on glass or crystal. With Andsnes you never see him forcefully establish his position as a soloist, but his sounds do that for him – and all eyes and ears in the audience were inescapably drawn to this immaculate Scandinavian who was doing wonders with sound, almost making us feel we can be where he is at the moment mentally. That is another feature of this performer that I have noticed over the years – somehow he is capable to share his vision of the piece in its entirety through the delicate balance of silences and chosen tempos in-between the notes, as though the musical thought with Andsnes exists somewhere around the sounds we hear and not exactly with them. For an encore, after a long ovation, he pleased the audiences by playing Stravinsky’s ‘Tango’ – a piece that was played just before by an orchestra but was originally intended for piano, and that sounded like a small inside joke from Andsnes and Jurowski.

Another soloist who appeared with Vladimir Jurowski on Saturday 21st April 2018 was new to me, and his performance made an astounding, once-in-a-lifetime impression. It was an Israeli-American violinist Gil Shaham who appears in London once in a season, and should be definitely awaited with anticipation. He played Beethoven’s only Violin Concerto that offered Shaham an ample ground to shine from the very start to the very beginning. It is an unusually long concerto, with many incredibly lyrical passages that are almost ethereal in their beauty, that finishes with a kind of joke from Beethoven, with one theme repeated again and again until it reaches the final virtuosic moment in the hands of the soloist. Gil Shaham, who plays the 1699 ‘Countess Polignac’ Stradivarius, despite being relatively young, somehow, with his rich sound, almost old-fashioned smiling showmanship and openness to both the audiences and the orchestra, looked and sounded like a violinist from the golden era of star performers of the 19th century. He produced the sound that is rarely heard in concert halls today, while also smiling kindly and openly (a thing the focused soloists rarely do) throughout his performance. Shaham was all into this sound, making it was as natural as breathing air for him, it seemed – so all the efforts were hidden under veneer of smiling elegance, a pleasure to be here, with us, to make music together. There was no extreme vitality or exuberance, just an overcompassing love for music and joy in producing and hearing the beautiful and varied sounds of Beethoven, that were as lyrical and joyful as probably Beethoven’s works could rarely be. One drank from each musical passage and lived through it as though hearing them was vital for one’s well-being and survival, and if music can make physical impact on us, it was indeed what was happening on the evening, as everyone was re-vitalized by Gil Shaham and jumped on their feet in ovation to this incredible performer.

Gil Shaham. Credits: Luke Ratray

And the final treat on these two days, if previous ones were not enough, was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No 6 played in the second half of the concert on 18 April 2018. This is where Vladimir Jurowski shined on the podium, while his presence was also an important part of other parts of two evenings programmes, as well. Keeping character with the first half of that evening, Jurowski concentrated on the joyful and youthful elements of the symphony, exacerbating its two final quick movements and letting the orchestra shine in its waltz and ensuing circus galop. One could almost forget that one was listening to Shostakovich, if it were not for the ever-present straightforwardness and abrupt and clear musical ideas that are so characteristic for the composer. Jurowski knew his musicans and his composer very well, and though he allowed elements of his usual gentleness and elegance of approach into his conducting, the culmination was overpowering and pulsating in the listeners’ blood veins for several moments after the sounds were no more. Excellent two concerts of the Stravinsky Journeys series of which there are more to come till the end of the year 2018.

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