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The Jurowski Sorcery

New York
Avery Fischer Hall, Lincoln Center
02/24/2008 -  
Johannes Brahms: 2nd Piano Concerto, in B flat Major, Opus 83
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: 6th Symphony in B minor “Pathétique”, Opus 74

Garrick Ohlsson (Pianist)
Russian National Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

A cloudless cobalt-blue sky, sparrows soaring, a brisk temperature, smiling sun and Whitman-radiant lovers, friends, poets, vagabonds and children sauntering amidst the beauties of a Sunday afternoon.
Just the right mood for a despondent Slavic “Pathétique” symphony, da? Well, actually, Nyet!
Still, Avery Fisher Hall was packed, because conductor Vladimir Jurowski, a New York favorite for several years, was doing the honors. And because the Russian National Orchestra (RNO) is a very special ensemble indeed.

Like Iván Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra last week, the RNO was founded by musicians for musicians, as an alternative to the plethora of State orchestras, most of which had lost their vigor. And like the Budapest orchestra, the RNO has attracted not only stellar Russians (like co-founders Mikhail Pletnev and Yuri Bashmet), but international figures like yesterday afternoon’s soloist, Garrick Ohlsson.

Ohlsson is usually a player of taste and muscularity. In fact, his Chopin is so wonderful because, like a samurai swordsman, that infinite power is held in reserve. But when letting loose with Brahms’ B flat major Concerto, Ohlsson’s tempestuous playing was more muscle than magic.

Bravura playing is hardly a distraction in most 19th Century concertos. But Brahms interrupts the tempests here with little solos (like the capriccio in the first movement) which Ohlsson simply hung along with the rest of the virtuosity. It was not a sloppy performance (albeit with a few wrong notes) but the propulsion that of mechanical engineer.

Not until the third movement did Ohlsson stop the staccatos and massive chords to play with his usual eloquence. The Hungarian-style finale (Brahms gave the premiere in Budapest!) was jaunty enough, and certainly a relief.

The Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” finally gave a chance to hear the RNO in its best Russian garb. And what a performance Jurowski gave. The orchestra had all the right materials—a lovely even tone for the strings, the plaintive Russian character for winds, and of course the growling penetrating brass, resembling the bass choir of a Russian Orthodox service.

Jurowski brought out the best of it from a touching beginning to the tricky accents in the second movement. The mighty march began at breakneck speed, and never let up, ending in a blaze of glory, horns, trombones, and percussion leading the way.

Unfortunately, Jurowski has not learned to keep his baton in the air at the end of the movement. Otherwise—as happened here—the large walrus contingent in the audience noisily slapped their collective flippers together, obscuring the first few measures of that oh so desolate ending.

Still, it was a stunning performance. Like his earlier Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera, Jurowski can turn the most familiar music into pure gold.

Harry Rolnick



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