by Michael Caruso
Russians played a large part in the local classical music scene this past weekend. Vladimir Jurowski guest conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center, leading the ensemble in Shostakovich’s “Leningrad Symphony No. 7.” Closer to home, Chestnut Hill’s Woodmere Art Museum hosted a solo piano recital by Oxana Harlamova Sunday afternoon. Her program included the Allemande movement from J.S. Bach’s “Suite No. 2 in C minor,” Beethoven’s (Waldstein) “Sonata No. 21 in C major” and Schumann’s “Carnaval.”
Harlamova took different interpretive approaches to the three scores she played. In the Bach, she eschewed any attempt to recreate the sound of a harpsichord, the instrument for which all of Bach’s suites were composed, and instead drew a full-bodied, smoothly connected tone from Woodmere’s Kawai piano. The result was music that sang beautifully, even if it only hinted at the dance that was the original motivation for this movement in the Second Suite, a collection of many stylized dances.
In the Beethoven, Harlamova took a more stylistically appropriate turn, using the modern piano to achieve the colorful effects Beethoven undoubtedly wanted to produce from the more meager instruments of his own time. She projected the driving pulse of the first movement, the dreamy contemplative quality of the short second and the glittering sunshine of the closing Rondo.
Harlamova often overshot the mark in Schumann’s “Carnaval,” a fantastical series of vignettes that purport to describe people, places and things but that, in reality, reveal shards of Schumann’s own splintered personality. In this, “Carnaval” is very much like the 24 Preludes of Chopin’s Opus 28 – far more revelatory than descriptive. In attempting to emphasize the rhetorical flourishes that characterize each of the movements of “Carnaval,” Harlamova frequently sacrificed textural clarity and digital accuracy.
Vladimir Jurowski guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra last weekend in a series of three concerts held in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, Nov. 17 – 19. The young maestro’s program consisted of only one work: Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 7 in C major.” The score is subtitled “Leningrad” in honor of its having been written in 1941-42 while the composer (and millions of other Russians) prepared for the German siege of the city, now returned to its original name of St. Petersburg.
After the symphony’s premiere in March of 1942 in Kuibyshev, orchestras all over the world vied to give its national premiere. In America, that honor went to Arturo Toscanini, an acclaimed anti-fascist, and the NBC Symphony. Eugene Ormandy, just six years into what would be his 44-year tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, led the work’s local premiere in November of that same year. It was the beginning of what turned out to be a career-long commitment to Shostakovich’s music and the popularity of that canon with local audiences.
Born in Moscow, Jurowski brought with him Saturday evening an ethnic birthright to this harrowing music. It should never be forgotten that Russia suffered more deaths during World War II — at least 25 million — than any of the other Allies. He also brings to all the scores he conducts a towering musicality based upon an impeccable technique that enables him to elicit playing of the highest emotional and technical levels from every ensemble he leads — and from the Philadelphians, in particular.
Saturday night’s concert gave more than sufficient proof that there’s far more to Vladimir Jurowski than the hype inspired by his smoldering good looks. Jurowski is a truly inspiring musician who knows precisely what he wants out of a score and just as precisely how to draw it from the musicians of an orchestra that isn’t even his own.
While it’s undeniable that Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony has its moments of banality and even of tedium, it also boasts some mightily exhilarating passages that evoke the image of millions of brave Russians fending off the Nazi hordes — and holding the eastern front just long enough for America’s might to turn the tide in the west.