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Prokofiev, Myaskovsky: Danjulo Ishizaka (cello) London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall, London. 28.4.2010 (GD)

Prokofiev:  Symphony-Concerto in E minor, Op 125, for Cello and Orchestra.

Myaskovsky: Symphony No 6,  in E flat major, Op 23.

Prokofiev was a student friend of Myaskovsky and he expressed an admiration for this longest of the composer’s 27 symphonies (over 30 if the odd sinfoniettas are included). After studying the scoreProkofiev noted, in a quasi critical, but ironic way, the work’s 75-minute duration and Golovanov conducted the complete work in Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre in May 1924 to a 15-minute ovation.

Tonight’s performance did not receive a 15-minute ovation, although in the polite manner of Festival Hall audiences, it was well received. Jurowski, mercifully, conducted the composer’s revised more compact version, still lasting just over 1 hour. The work has probably not been heard in London since Henry Wood gave a heavily cut version in the late 20s and as was to be expected, Jurowski gave a commited rendition of this rarity. Indeed, it says a great deal for his integrity that this long, rather sprawling symphony held my attention for almost its complete span.

This is a very 'Russian' work in a specific 'popular' sense. Those first Russian audiences, not exclusively middle-class, recognised this Russian quality, not only in the work’s many parodies of popular Russian themes - some deriving from folk elements, some intoning a Soviet theme,  like the choral setting of a popular revolutionary anthem on a poem by the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren - but also from references to to 'Boris Godunov' and Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique' Symphony. All of these were vsomehow etched on the Russian consciousness at the time of the premiere.  

Jurowski took the main themes in the first movements main ''Allegro feroce' at a very swift pace, even faster here than in the fabled Svetlanov recorded performance. Myaskovsky deploys E flat as the home key, extremely rare in symphonic music but from this home tonic, the composer develops a constellation of tonalities ranging from variants of E flat through to C sharp minor, C major and the B major/B minor from the ‘Pathetique.’ To my ears, and on many occasions, this sounded like what was used to be rather cynically called 'conductors music', not necessarily a bad thing! One heard thematic/ textual elements from Richard Strauss, Mahler, Hindemith, Cesar Franck, and perhaps even Elgar. The quotes from 'Boris Godunov' and the 'Pathetique' were delineated very clearly at the recapitulation and coda of this movement by Jurowski with an LPO in top form.

Jurowski was in his element in the following 'Presto tenebroso', a full blown scherzo and trio in compact form; the most economically structured movement in a rather inflated work. The pointed celesta rhythms here have reminded some of the scherzo from Mahler's Sixth Symphony, but tonight I heard more from Russian folk inflections. Ideas from the trio section are developed in the B major 'Andante appassionato' and the concluding redemptive theme on solo horn was beautifully moulded and played. Jurowski wisely kept his eye on the 'Andante' marking, never letting the music drag. The concluding 'Allegro vivace' was inflected with the jubilant, 'swinging' E flat major tune on six horns. Contemporary Russian audiences delighted in the openly popular, even 'vulgar' themes in 'classical' music, something which troubled what Soviet culturalists termed  the 'bourgeois individualism' of the West. After the choral intonation of the above mentioned Revolutionary 'chant', effectively sung from from each end of the choir area, the mood changes. We hear the development of repeated intonations of the 'dies irae' motive - shades of Rachmaninov? - the intonation of the death of 'Boris Godunov' returns, as does the poignant clarinet theme from the 'Andante appassionato'. The symphony ends on a theme from the Russian Orthodox chant 'Of the Separation of Soul and Body', where the tone of redemption prevails.

It is hoped that this performance will be issued on the LPO's own label. On occasion it lacked the tonal/orchestral finesse of Neeme Järvi's recorded version with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, and didn't always maintain rhythmic exuberance of Svetlanov's more Russian sounding recording. I do believe however that Jurowski's reading said something new about the symphony, especially its fusion of dramatic edge and lyrical empathy.

The Prokofiev work, sometimes called 'Sinfonia Concertante' developed from a planned Cello Concerto (number two) which in turn had its origins as a cello sonata. It was first performed in concerto form in 1952 with Rostropovich as soloist and with Sviatoslav Richter making a putative conducting debut. But the composer was still unsatisfied with the work and later modified the orchestration and cello part deciding on the more 'dialogic' title 'Symphony-Concerto'. This was not heard in public until after the composer’s death in 1953.

Although it has never been a 'popular' work, the Symphony-Concerto is one of Prokofiev most economic and subtle pieces, especially in its mercurial multi-faceted orchestration: a large orchestra, yet one managing to sound chamber-like in its economical intensity. Both soloist and conductor registered the 4-note ostinato theme based on E-F sharp - G and B, a basic ABA form, in first movement 'Allegro giusto' very well.  The semblance of the 'death-potion’ theme from 'Romeo and Juliet’ was sharply delineated, with Jurowski punctuating bouncing woodwind/brass motives effectively. The 'Andante con moto' had real motion, but also a sense of lyrical introspection with its shades  of bi-tonality and the  march figurations were precisely etched in the final 'Allegro marcato.'  I particularly enjoyed the real rhythmic panache projected in the Byelorussian folk theme with its quirky swagger. The theme and variation sequences were beautifully moulded into the thematic material which initiates the misleading jubilation of the coda – it’s misleading because the work ends on a note of broken harmony in the orchestra and solo part. This is a final note, typical with late Prokofiev, of ambiguity or even scepticism. 

All the way through, Jurowski attended to every nuance both in orchestral detail, and structure. Danjulo Ishizaka coped quite well, especially in the work’s many complex rhythmic formations, but overall his playing did not displace memories of Rostropovich, lacking the sheer protean diversity and dialogical energy of the works dedicate. Often I had the impression that Ishizaka dwelt too much on a particular instrumental detail at the expense of the whole. Unfortunately, at the end of the 'Andante', Ishizaka broke a string and had to leave the stage to replace it. This inconvenience did not deter Jurowski however, who inspired both orchestra and re-stringed soloist in the freshness and intensity of playing in the opening of the last movement.   

Geoff Diggines

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