Carnegie Hall: Jurowski & the LPO with Violin Soloist Janine Jansen

I attended the London Philharmonic Orchestra's concert at Carnegie Hall last night.  Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski led the orchestra in Matthias Pintscher's "towards Osiris" (2005), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5, K. 219 (nicknamed the Turkish Concerto due to an episode in the Rondeau movement), and Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 4, Op. 98.  Janine Jansen was the soloist in the Mozart concerto.

I had a mixed reaction to this concert.  On the one hand, I thought the orchestra played very well, and seemed to give the conductor what he wanted to hear.  My problem was that in some of the music I was not so comfortable with what the conductor (or soloist) wanted to hear.

To start on a positive note, I really enjoyed Matthias Pintscher's piece.   Pintscher, a German composer, has been living in New York the past few years and has won some prestigious commissions from major musical organizations.  He wrote a work on commission for the NY Phil a few years ago that was presented in that orchestra's "Contact" series devoted to new music.  My positive reaction to that piece led me to seek out recordings, and I've become a "fan" of the composer.

Pintscher is a tone-painter; he creates sonic landscapes rich with incident, and he is a very imaginative orchestrator.  "towards Osiris" did not boast anything I would describe as melodies or thematic development, instead providing what seemed like a collage of different sounds juxtaposed in imaginative ways.  At the end, there were some loud boos mixed with the applause, suggesting that some people coming to listen to Mozart and Brahms were not ready for such a radically different musical experience, and unwilling to give it a chance.  But it is genuinely a musical experience, and I find Pintscher's music very much worth hearing.  I think there is some humor mixed in, and a feeling at the big moments that he is having real fun seeing what kinds of sounds he can conjure up.  I think that were he around today, Charles Ives would be a fan of his music….

There can be many opinions about how to play Mozart's violin concerti.  They are products of his teen years, but no less inspired for being "transitional" pieces in the development of a youthful composer.

The 5th Concerto is distinguished among the five genuine Mozart violin concerti in its indulgence of a mid-18th century fad of "Turkish music" in one segment of the finale, thus its name.  It is also distinguished from the other concerti by the slow introduction to the first movement, and the exquisite songfulness of the adagio. 

I thought last night's performance was hampered by undue restraint by soloist and conductor in the outer movements.  Some early music groups have shown that Mozart can take a more robust style of presentation, and their example has been followed by some modern instrument groups as well.  I heard a performance of this concerto at the Mostly Mozart Festival that brought more muscle to the allegros, and I've come to expect that. 

Given that as background, I thought Ms. Jansen's solos were impeccably well-played, if more well-mannered than I would want, and the reduced orchestra (strings, oboes and horns) made a sweet sound.  But I think Mozart was really having some adolescent fun in the finale, and inadequate exuberance deprives the music of one of its essential attributes.

Finally, the Brahms symphony.  Here I was very conflicted.  On the one hand, I thought Jurowski and the orchestra did some things very well.  On the other, I had problems – real problems – with the way they did the first movement, with some odd phrasings, breaking of the line by exaggerating the pauses between phrases, and underplaying some of the climactic moments. It had some of the over-controlling quality to which I used to object in the work of Lorin Maazel with the NY Phil, interrupting the natural flow of the music to play with the line…  I was happier with the andante and the scherzo (Allegro giocoso), although I thought the triangle player could have been more assertive in his first few entries.  (The triangle is the main novelty in the third movement, and if it is underplayed, the point is lost.)  Again in the finale, there were some points were I felt there was too much "holding back."  The flute solo, gorgeously played, slowed down too much for comfort.

I guess I would sum it up by saying that although the musicians seemed thoroughly engaged by their task in presenting this work, there was a sort of emotional reserve about the whole thing, the feeling of Brahms as the stuffy contrapuntal classical master making his intricate machine lumber forward (G.B. Shaw's customary complaint about Brahms' music), as opposed to Brahms the romantic providing a throbbing inner pulse of excitement.  The finale should end in a blaze of exultation pushing forward; similarly the ending of the first movement.  But in both of those I felt deprived of the emotional pay-off by the relatively dispassionate approach.

The program notes provided by Carnegie Hall on this symphony struck me as fundamentally misguided, by the way, describing it as "almost unrelievedly dark-minded, opening and closing in the depths of E-minor despond."  That's pure rubbish.  I find the opening to be full of yearning, and the second theme to be full of determination, almost militant, not despondent.  As for the finale, there is certainly deep emotion, drama, and urgency (some of which was lost due to Jurowski's holding back of tempi, especially in the final pages of the score), but the main emotion I would attribute to the final bars is emphatic determination, not despondency.  I'm assuming the LPO had nothing to do with the program notes supplied by Carnegie Hall, and that Maestro Jurowski may have been totally unaware of them.  Whatever problems I had with his interpretation of this symphony, they did not involve an attempt to make the opening and closing sound despondent, which they certainly did not.


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