Sounds of Soviet Russia  are revived  in Bordeaux

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 05.06.2017

 

The Orchestre National de Bordeaux Aquitaine added another feather to its cap last week (June 1-2) with the engagement of a leading international guest conductor, Michail Jurowski, who led the ONBA in two demanding orchestral pieces, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 6 and the Prokofiev Cinderella ballet music.

Jurowski brought with him a heavyweight legacy of his own Russian family antecedents plus his formative years alongside the great musical figures of the Soviet years – Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Kagan, Gilels and Khachaturian. As a youngster Jurowski knew Prokofiev personally and played four-hand piano pieces with Shostakovich.

The family friendship with Shostakovich has helped establish Jurowski as one of the foremost interpreters of the 15 symphonies. His Bordeaux appearance and his selection of music for the evening thus highlighted a rich legacy that few living conductors could claim today.

ONBA players were still abuzz with the experience after the engagement was completed. His natural authority and his sense of history had been clear even in rehearsal. One member of the orchestra told me his Russian background brought some intangibles such as the vivid colors behind the printed score. He made his ideas plain but “nothing was imposed by force,” the section player said, “but there wasn’t much room for discussion. There was a sense of Soviet authority about him.”

Jorowski speaks no French and little English but the language barrier was quickly overcome with hand signals and nods. “A raised finger was enough to silence us. He certainly was no pussy cat,” the player said. Occasional words in English were blurted out but he relied more on numbers. “He was very precise. But working with him was an enormous pleasure for all of us.”

The Sixth Symphony is perhaps not the most obvious of the Shostakovich oeuvre to excite a Bordeaux audience. Even its Moscow premiere in 1939 was criticized as starting too slowly and somberly, followed by two shorter and swifter movements, labeled respectively allegro and presto. The unusual structure puzzled the critics. One writer found it overly abstract, lacking in folk melodies and the heroic grandeur of the Fifth Symphony -- official requirements of the day. Worse, Shostakovich was in bad odor from his most recent flop, the controversial 1934 opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, a tale of murder and adultery.

The Sixth began a gigantic monument to Lenin; the buildup in the Soviet press created expectations of choral-orchestral work with prominent soloists and patriotic text. Shostakovich never explained why he scaled it down to this more modest instrumental work.

The Bordeaux performance in the city’s cavernous Auditorium was an earnest reading by a committed orchestra but the material, to me, only meandered. “Abstract” is a good word to describe it. Jurowski worked hard to maintain tempos and polyphonic passages, interspersed with solo turns by flute, piccolo and woodwinds. Finally, the last two minutes grew to a din of brass and percussion that virtually shook the walls. If it was calculated to trigger applause, the Bordeaux audience responded. Jurowski, limping on a cane, returned for three curtain calls, and invited his featured players to take individual bows. The applause, including rhythmic clapping, went on for ten minutes.

The program also included Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” ballet music, a colorful piece of 50 scenes. Some ballet music can stand on its own as a symphonic creation, notably Prokofiev’s earlier and more successful “Romeo et Juliette”. But the complexities of rhythm and mood in “Cinderella” succeed mainly in one unintended aspect – making the listener yearn for a ballet troupe.

To be fair, the music echoes with stirring Prokofiev harmonies and melodies, the main one even overheard being hummed by some audience members at the smoke break (this is France) during intermission. Without surtitles of images, however, it was a stretch to follow the Perrault children’s classic story. True,  key moments such as the waltzing ball and the midnight chimes served as reference points.

In this recording, considered to be the gold standard, Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in familiar passages:


The grand waltz, in fact, was Prokofiev’s favorite passage. In the excellent program notes by Robert Pierron, Prokofiev is quoted as writing, “I strove to reveal in the dances the poetry of the love between Cinderella and the prince, which is the main subject of this musical canvas.”

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