Russians now command London’s two principal orchestras, with Valery Gergiev at the London Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski at the London Philharmonic, “sponsored by the Tsukanov family,” according to the program notes for the Philharmonic’s Carnegie Hall concert Wednesday night. The expansive Russian presence in London extends from the arts to football, where Roman Abramovich acquired the Chelsea Football Club and Alisher Usmanov bought into its rival club Arsenal, to media, where Alexander Lebedev bought the Evening Standard and the Independent.
The choice of conductor is often influenced by major donors, though, and the London Philharmonic certainly could have done worse than the 40-year-old Jurowski. (The New York Philharmonic did in fact do a great deal worse with Alan Gilbert, and the Met with Fabio Luisi.) The young Russian follows in the footsteps of past London Philharmonic conductors such as Bernard Haitink and Klaus Tennstedt. Although he is a talented and sometimes exciting leader, one misses the sagacity and reserve of European maestros of the old school. With his athletic presence, shoulder-length hair and black Nehru jacket, Jurowski radiates hipness. He has told interviewers that videos of the late Leonard Bernstein helped him rediscover his Jewish roots, after an entirely secular upbringing in Russia before the fall of Communism in 1990. The Bernstein influence was evident in some of his quirkier interpretative decisions.
The centerpiece of Jurowski’s program was Brahms’ 4th Symphony, a work considered difficult in its time, but so familiar that a young maestro is hard-pressed to put a new stamp on it. Apart from a characteristic heaviness, Jurowski added little of his own until the final movement, a passacaglia-like set of variations, which he performed as if it were Mahler (in which he specializes) rather than Brahms. In place of the taut continuity that Brahms intended, the Russian conductor chopped the final movement into post-Romantic episodes, slowing the tempo to a crawl for some of the middle variations. Nothing in Brahms’ own tempo indications justifies this sort of willfulness, which did mayhem to the composer’s intent.
Jurowski was more convincing accompanying the engaging Dutch violinist Janine Jansen in Mozart’s 5th (“Turkish”) Violin Concerto. Apart from a few jarring turns of phrase, the Mozart was gorgeous. Playing the 1727 “Barrere” Stradivarius, Jansen has a singing tone and pure intonation that remind us how closely 18th-century instrumental practice depends on bel canto vocal technique. The musicologists have done their best to banish vibrato from 18th-century music on dubious historical grounds, and contemporary performers too often buzz and saw rather than sing. The “Turkish” music in the concerto’s last movement gave Jurowski an opportunity to be himself and make a lot of noise; this time, however, in keeping with Mozart’s comic intent.
The evening opened with the contemporary German composer Matthias Pintscher’s “Toward Osiris,” which, according to the program notes, “took its cue from the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris, whose body was ripped to pieces by his vengeful brother, scattered far and wide, and lovingly reconstituted by his consort, Iris.” The 6-minute work is a study in “the disintegration and reintegration of musical styles and materials.” Pintscher got half of that right but is still waiting for Isis to come around and pick up the pieces.
Jurowski’s star appeal appears to be succeeding in attracting new listeners to Carnegie Hall. Much of the audience seemed unaware that applause is forbidden between movements of a work, which suggests that they had not attended many concerts in the past. If Jurowski’s hipness brings new blood to the concert hall, the more power to him.