Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky
Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Russian National Orchestra
The Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky pairing is such a winning mix of performance, repertory, and sound that I'm tempted to skip the preliminaries and name it my "Blue Note" CD of the year right here and now. Composed between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the four Suites provided Tchaikovsky a welcome respite from the formal necessities of symphony writing, and also the opportunity to express a more relaxed, playful and intimate aspect of his musical personality. Though they've never earned the respect accorded the symphonies or the (more popular) concertos, these sunlit works contain some of his most engaging and satisfying music.
In the Third (and I think the best) Suite, there are four movements: a graceful, flowing andante; a charming, but reflective waltz; a lively, effervescent scherzo; and as finale, an ingenious and surprising set of variations, twice as long as the other movements and often programmed by itself. For a long time now, my favorite performance of this music has been the version by Micheal Tilson Thomas with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. No conductor does a better job of exploiting the gracious, dance-like character of the music.
Twenty-eight year old Vladimir Jurowski has taken musical London by storm. He is now the music director of the Glyndebourne Festival, a very prestigious post, and next year, even more impressively, he will become music director of the London Philharmonic, where he has been principal guest conductor since 2002. His performance of the Tchaikovsky Suite suggests some of the reasons for such a rapid ascent.
For one thing, Jurowski is more extroverted and volatile (dare I say, "Russian") than MTT, and he projects a stronger, more dynamic sense of contrast. In his hands the second movement waltz is more restless than melancolique, the march that forms its central section full of longing. The playful scherzo is also more intense and energetic. But it is in the final variations that Jurowski sweeps the field. I've never heard this music played with more life-affirming swagger and electricity.
The "Divertimento" makes a logical pairing: The Fairy's Kiss is Stravinsky's homage to Tchaikovsky. There have been several terrific recordings of this music, most notably by Ernest Ansermet and Fritz Reiner. Jurowski emphasizes the goofy instability of a score that tries to fuse Stravinsky's cool, spiky neoclassicism with Tchaikovsky's warm-hearted melodic invention. After Ansermet's ironic detachment and Reiner's virtuosity, Jurowski reminds us of just how much fun this music is, how full of surprises. The results are again alternately beguiling and dazzling.
My first response to the Shostakovich disc was not enthusiastic. Exciting as much of the playing was, Jurowski didn't seem in touch with the inner life of either symphony. In the First, he missed the tragic irony conductors like Leonard Bernstein have brought to the music, and his Sixth didn't generate either the unbearable tension that other conductors have found in the opening Largo, or the parody one has come to expect in the last two movements.
Then I read a review of these same performances by the English critic Christopher Howell, and it made me rethink my position. For Jurowski, says Howell, "Shostakovich and the regime he lived under belong to the past and not the present." And that seems exactly right. Our sense that the most important Shostakovich symphonies must be set in a political and historical context derives from the inescapable influence of conductors who were there at the time. Mravinsky, Janssons, Sanderling, Barshai, Kondrashin all had direct contact with both the composer and the war, and their performances seem charged with the anxiety and bleakness of life under Stalin, the horror and catastrophe of war.
Jurowski represents a younger generation of conductors who may choose to approach a Shostakovich symphony with the same interpretative freedom they bring to Beethoven or Brahms. In that future, we may have to distinguish between "militarized" and "demilitarized" performances of the symphonies: those that evoke that past, and those that don't. In Oleg Caetani's very militarized performance of the Sixth Symphony, there's no missing the note of bitter parody in the last two movements: here is Shostakovich mocking socialist realist culture and music. In Jurowski's very "demilitarized" Sixth, these same movements are played "straight," but with a giddy exuberance and drive that are genuinely celebratory.
Which is to say, Jurowski's approach to Shostakovich is unashamedly Romantic. For him, the composer of the First Symphony is not a prematurely world-weary 19 year old, but a brash young man announcing his arrival on the scene with a kaleidoscopic range of mood and emotion worthy of Mahler. This is not to say that Jurowski sentimentalizes (or melodramatizes) the music. In the First Symphony he lets us hear the death rattle at the end of the scherzo, and the snare drum crescendo that opens the last movement is appropriately terrifying (as is the doom-laden thump that ends the work). But also there is a sense of warmth and color one doesn't often hear in Shostakovich. For many "militarized" conductors, phrasing is brusque, the tone dry or chilly, and the one permissible color gunmetal gray. In the 20-minute Largo that opens the Sixth Symphony, Caetani generates a remorseless sense of tension; Mravinsky a harrowing bleakness. Jurowski is much more openly emotional and varied. With its unapologetic warmth and lush wash of colors, the movement sounds like something Mahler could have written.
If, after all of this, I would still recommend Bernstein (with the Chicago Symphony) and Martinon (with the London Symphony) in the First Symphony, and Mravinsky and Caetani in the Sixth, that's only because I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy. But certainly anyone with an interest in Shostakovich or a love for these particular works should go out of their way to hear Jurowski offer a dissenting opinion on what is sometimes considered settled law. In the coming times of "anything goes" Shostakovitch interpretation, you just might have to make more room on your shelf for multiple versions of the same symphony.
I first fell in love with the Russian National Orchestra on hearing Mikhail Pletnev's bracing performance of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony. Like the Lahti Symphony, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Kirov Orchestra, the RNO is a virtuoso ensemble that plays with a winning combination of intensity, delicacy, and tonal beauty. Though I didn't hear these CDs in "Super Audio," I can affirm that the sound I did hear was demonstration quality. There is a visceral charge, a thrilling sense of presence in the heightened realism and very spacious images these CDs project. At the last note of all four of these pieces, I kept expecting applause--the performances sounded that vivid and believably live. In brief, both of these discs are highly recommended.