Thursday, 8 February 2018

Jurowski : Stravinsky Firebird, Rimsky-Korsakov

Young Stravinsky, around the time he met Rimsky-Korsakov in 1902
Vladimir Jurowski's Stravinsky Journey with the London Philharmonic Orchestras took flight with The Firebird at the Royal Festival Hall. A spectacular performance, soaring to heights of glory. The Firebird is an immortal with magical powers, who defies the bounds of nature.  Jurowski inspires an explosion so dazzling that it was almost blinding.  Colours shone in myriad shades, sparkling like jewels lit with fire from within.  But beneath the splendour lies an undercurrent of sadness. The Prince, like Kashkey, cannot remain unchanged.  That blaze of resplendent gorgeousness comes at a price. Jurowski's Firebird is much more than a flying jewel box. Bold, bright and savage, it is informed by an awareness that happiness must be savoured to the full while it lasts   Inevitably, life ends. Flames turn to embers and ash.  Folk legends often have a core of moral truth: they are much more than pretty fairy tales.  One of Jurowski's great strengths is that he is a man who thinks. All good conductors think musically, but Jurowski is a philosopher of sorts, too, and spiritual.  He doesn't often conduct dancers, so his Stravinsky isn't as dynamically earthy and physical as, say, Gergiev's, but it has a  psychological integrity, which is just as valid, and just as rewarding.
There's also much more to conducting than waving a baton (or waving your arms). Gpood conductors make connections, enriching their programmes  to enhance the music they choose.  The Firebird is an outstanding piece but it didn't spring out of nowhere.  Jurowski conducted Stravinsky's "lost" Funeral Song (Chante funèbre) op 5  at the 2017 Proms when he had to programme it with  Shostakovich Symphony no 11, Britten's Russian Funeral and  Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no 1 in D to fit in with the BBC's theme-based strategy (read more here), so Stravinsky got short shrift. This time,  at the Royal Festival Hall, Jurowski was able to present the piece in proper context.  Musically, much more intelligent, and played with more committment, too.   When Gergiev conducted the modern world premiere at St Petersburg, he programmed it with Rimsky-Korsakov The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1907) and Stravinsky's The Firebird, enshrining bthe connections.  Please read my piece about that premiere : Lost no more : Stravinsky' s Funeral Song.  This time round, Jurowski made the same - inescapable - connection, while adding more early Stravinsky Scherzo fantastique and Rimsky-Korsakov's Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, with Alexander Ghindin.

Stravinsky's  Scherzo fantastique op 3 is a very early work, written in 1908 before the death of Rimsky-Korsakov in June that year, for whose funeral Stravinsky was to write the Funeral Song.  A neat and erudite connection, but also musically astute, since in the Scherzo fantastique, we can hear ideas in germination which will come to fruit in The Firebird. Stravinsky was already Stravinsky, though he owed his mentor so much.  Rimsky-Korsakov's early Piano Concerto in C sharp minor op 30 (1882) was inspired by and dedicated to Franz Liszt, and first performed with the support of Mily Balakirev. The piece honours both masters, incorporating a folk song theme from Balakirev and adapting it in a Lisztian manner, with "Polish" flourishes.  Ghindin seemed to relish the showcase passages, notes flying freely and vividly. Like a Firebird !. 

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