Michail Jurowski makes belated US debut in blistering Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky

Cleveland Orchestra
Michail Jurowski, conductor
Vadim Gluzman, violin
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 5, 2019

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
 Bach: Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 – Sarabande
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, The Year 1905

Last weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts marked not only Michail Jurowski’s local debut, but – astonishingly for a 75-year-old with a long and distinguished career – his US debut. Good things come to those who wait, and given the level of playing, one could have easily mistook conductor and orchestra as seasoned collaborators. Adding to the occasion was Jurowski’s participation in a pre-concert interview along with violin soloist Vadim Gluzman, both offering fascinating insights. Gluzman spoke of his cherished instrument, a 1690 Stradivarius formerly played by Leopold Auer, the original dedicatee of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – this is to say, this is the instrument for which the composer envisioned his now ubiquitous concerto. In deference to the violin’s provenance, Gluzman remarked on his preference for Auer’s edition of the work. Jurowski fondly recalled his first exposure to The Cleveland Orchestra while the latter was on tour to Moscow in 1965 under Szell. This performance he called one of the “most powerful feelings from live music” he’d ever experienced, and was thus particularly keen to stand in front of them as conductor. He further reminisced about his personal friendship with Shostakovich, with whom he played piano duets!

Pre-concert interview, left to right: moderator Cicilia Yudha, Michail Jurowski, Vadim Gluzman

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is certainly a well-known quantity, yet violinist and conductor managed to forge a fresh interpretation. A gentle, untroubled lyricism opened the work, so much at odds with the composer’s tormented life. Gluzman’s instrument was particularly rich in the low register, something Tchaikovsky took advantage of when writing the work, emanating a songful, burnished tone in this music of endless, organic development, with one theme flowing out of the next. The orchestral climax was given with vigor and swagger, and in the cadenza, one was struck by Gluzman’s crystal clear intonation of the stratospherically high notes and thorough command of his storied instrument – joined by flutist Joshua Smith in a particularly affecting moment. A choir of winds – a notch too loud to my ears – opened the central Canzonetta, and the violin sang with an ineffable melancholy, quite a contrast from the breakneck dance of the finale. Gluzman encored with the sarabande from Bach’s Second Partita, given with stately introspection.

Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony is patently programmatic, recounting the horrific events of Bloody Sunday in graphic detail. The events – occurring one year before the composer’s birth and witnessed firsthand by his father – entailed the mass murder of peaceful demonstrators by the tsarist regime on a fateful Sunday in January 1905. The symphony was completed in 1957, and Jurowski suggested it was inspired by the Hungarian Revolution of the year prior which had some clear parallels – in other words, ever the subversive, Shostakovich was using historical events to comment upon the present. The work opened with the eerie and chilling motionlessness of a St. Petersburg January, a calm before the storm, aspiring to the monumental stasis of a Bruckner symphony. A plethora of folk songs in support of the revolutionary program was integral to the fabric of the work, first appearing in the brilliant trumpet of Michael Sachs.

A jarring contrast was had in the following movement, structurally serving as a scherzo but miles removed from a light-hearted affair. Matters seemed to crest to apparent triumph, only to devolve into music of shattering, shocking violence, with the snare depicting gunshots in gruesome recount, leading to a grinding fugue in the low strings of blistering contrapuntal ferocity. What followed was music of a broken world, never the same, this being the beginning of the end for the tsarists, and ghostly sounds of the celesta and muted trumpet finally brought matters to an inconclusive close. The third movement, titled “Eternal Memory”, was mourning of deepest lamentation. The strings initiated, followed ominously by the low brass. Matters burgeoned to an impassioned outcry, but in due course retreated to the somber beginnings. The closing “Tocsin” (“Alarm” – fittingly at this point a siren was heard from a passing emergency vehicle outside) jolted matters out of the shadows, startling in intensity. A march of relentless vigor proceeded, toppling over into a reminiscence of the quietude of the work’s distant opening, heightened by a plaintive English horn solo from Robert Walters. The coda added bells to the texture, material as impressive and blood rushing as anything Shostakovich wrote, yet after such bombast, Jurowski held the audience suspended in shocking silence.

Igor Levit auspicious in Chicago recital debut

Igor Levit, piano
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
March 12, 2017

Rzewski: Dreams, Part II
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120

Shostakovich: Waltz-Scherzo, No. 5 from Dances of the Dolls, Op. 91b

One of the most exciting Russian pianists of his generation, Igor Levit made a somewhat belated Chicago debut in Symphony Center’s Sunday afternoon piano series.  A thoughtful program comprised of a recent work of Frederic Rzewski paired with Beethoven’s mighty Diabelli Variations made for a probing, rigorous recital, and the stellar reputation that preceded Levit lived up to expectation.

Igor Levit, photo credit Robbie Lawrence

Inspired by the 1990 Akira Kurosawa film Yume, Rzewski was moved to compose his first book of Dreams (the English rendering of the film’s Japanese title) in 2012-13, followed by a second book of four further works in 2014.  Part II was composed expressly for Levit who gave the world premiere in 2015, and one couldn’t have asked for a more convincing interpreter of this substantial 35-minute work.  The opening “Bells” began in the depths of the piano’s lowest register, to my ears suggesting the beginning of Liszt’s Funérailles, and proceeded at a glacial pace of imposing power.  “Fireflies” was a lighter affair, with a series of trills bringing the titular insects to life, reminiscent of Scriabin’s F sharp major etude from Op. 42 (nicknamed after a much less pleasant insect – the mosquito), and in due course building to wild intensity.

“Ruins” was a chaconne of sorts, its contrapuntal intricacies looking to the Baroque as a guiding light, and a particularly striking effect was achieved with tremolos in both hands.  The concluding “Wake Up” was quintessential Rzewski in its appropriation of folk music, here the song of the same title by Woody Guthrie.  The Guthrie was first introduced in the right hand alone, and appearing again at the very end, but with jarring tone clusters, and movement’s climaxes certainly served to wake one up indeed.

The incomparable Diabelli Variations of Beethoven made for a logical juxtaposition as they were of deep inspiration to Rzewski in his own monumental set of variations, based on the Chilean protest song The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (and incidentally, local admirers of Rzewski’s piano music will have a chance to see that work performed by Ran Dank at Mandel Hall next month).  Levit gave the opening theme a sprightly workout before embarking on the work’s epic trajectory, Beethoven’s compendium of a lifetime’s worth of discoveries in piano technique.

Under Levit’s self-assurance and commanding execution, there was essentially never a dull moment in the hour-long work.  The presto of Variation X was given at a mind-boggling velocity, while time was all but suspended in the solemnity of Variation XIV.  Deft voicing was achieved in the somber Variation XX, while just minutes later there was much humor to be had in Variation XXII’s interpolation of Mozart’s “Notte e giorno faticar”.  Levit clearly delineated the contrapuntal lines of the Fughetta (Variation XXIV), and the rippling effect he created in Variation XXVI was wondrous.  The final, slow variations entered the spiritual realm, culminating in the massive Fugue (Variation XXXII), and the closing minuet, seemingly a nostalgic look backwards to the work’s humble beginnings.

After the weight of the Beethoven, some lighter fare was needed.  Levit responded in kind with a lone encore, Shostakovich’s “Waltz-Scherzo”, bubbling with an irresistible impish charm.