Review: The Arts Desk London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Jurowski/ Royal Festival Hall, London
Benedetti, LPO, Jurowski, RFH
Imaginative programme delivered with intensity and precision
Vladimir Jurowski began his latest season as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic with a typically bold and adventurous programme. At its core were the two Szymanowski violin concertos performed by Nicola Benedetti, and these were framed by Debussy’s Prélude à l’après–midi d‘un faune and Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite. The two concertos are stylistically distinct, the First impressionistic, the Second folk-influenced, so the pairings were apt. As ever, Jurowski delivered supple, well-crafted performances, and Benedetti shone, but the highlight of the evening was the Bartók, an orchestral showpiece delivered with consummate mastery by the London Philharmonic forces.
The orchestra has a new principal flute, Juliette Bausor. She has a distinctive tone, rich and clear, particularly in the lower register, ideal then for the opening of the Debussy . Jurowski’s interpretation followed suit, suitably flowing and lyrical, but with plenty of detail and focus. In the (slightly) more turbulent central section, he pointed up many of the accented entries and made phrase climaxes more emphatic. That occasionally felt overanalytical, but it never disturbed the flow.
Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto is the more intense and demanding of the two, but Nicola Benedetti (pictured right by Simon Fowler) performs it regularly and has clearly got under the music’s skin. It’s technically demanding, but the greater challenge is in the interpretation. The mood and texture seem to switch constantly, with the long, lyrical lines often cut off abruptly as the music changes direction. But Benedetti is able to make all this seem logical and coherent. She applies a rich but varied vibrato to much of the music, sometimes wide and fast, but just as often narrow and slow. The result is a tone and expression as varied as that of the orchestra beneath. She also has the sheer aural presence required to command those expansive orchestral textures, and Jurowksi, while always sympathetic, never felt the need to constrain the ensemble for her.
The Second Concerto is inspired by the folk music of the Tatra Mountains, where the composer spent his last years. The violin lines here a just as lyrical, but the structure is more straightforward and there are fewer of those unexpected changes. Again, Benedetti had the measure of the music, and this was another commanding performance. Particularly impressive was her ability to integrate the brief folk-fiddle episodes into the otherwise cosmopolitan textures – seamless integrity achieved through interpretive conviction.
The music’s frequently maniacal quality came into sharp focus under Jurowski’s baton.The orchestra was on top form throughout both concertos. Jurowski worked hard to raise, and maintain, the intensity of sound and texture. That was particularly true of the coda following the cadenza in the First Concerto – he seemed to be worried that the tension would slacken here, but he needn’t have worried, it was as intense as ever.
An excellent evening too for the brass. Special mention should go to bass trombonist Lyndon Meredith, who, remarkably, had solos in both concertos and in the Bartók , and sounded suitably imposing on each occasion. His star turn in the Bartók came in the opening bars, and set the tone for a spectacular reading. Jurowski’s sheer precision can sometimes make more lyrical music feel mechanical, and there was a suspicion of that in the Debussy, but in Bartók’s score it was ideal. The music’s frequently maniacal quality came into sharp focus under Jurowski’s baton.
Further praise for the trombones, as a section now, who despatched each virtuosic episode with ease. For the huge percussion section too, a defining feature of this work, and suitably imposing this evening. And finally for the woodwinds and strings, all of whom were regularly taken outside their comfort zone by Bartók’s radical scoring. For such an imaginative and compelling work, it is surprising that The Miraculous Mandarin is so rarely performed. The most obvious reason is the sheer technical demands it places on every member of the orchestra, and on the interpretive skills of the conductor. But everyone last night rose to the challenge. A spectacular season opener, then, imaginatively programmed and delivered with precision and flair.