In Precise Movements, a Russian Sense of Drama

02.26.08
Garrick Ohlsson, Russian National Orchestra
The New York Times

The Russian National Orchestra, with its young and energetic players, seemed like an upstart band when Mikhail Pletnev founded it in 1990, but he quickly established it as an important ensemble in the post-Soviet music world. The orchestra has also had a fruitful relationship with Vladimir Jurowski, the 35-year-old Russian firebrand who became its principal guest conductor in 2005.

Mr. Jurowski is juggling other prestigious posts - the directorships of the Glyndebourne Opera Festival and the London Philharmonic Orchestra - as well as a busy conducting schedule. But from a New Yorker's perspective, his relationship with this Russian orchestra seems particularly strong: he conducted it on its visits here in 2006 and 2007, and when it returned to Avery Fisher Hall on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon he was at its podium again.

Mr. Jurowski opened the Saturday program with the Schubert Eighth Symphony, the "Unfinished," in a completion by Anton Safronov. Listeners faced with a finished "Unfinished" inevitably ask two questions. Is a completion necessary? And given that for most people the answer is no - this work, beloved in its two-movement form, has a secure berth in the repertory - is the solution worthy of the challenge?

That answer, alas, was a thumbs down as well. For the third movement Mr. Safronov had Schubert's piano sketch as a guide, but his big, boomy orchestration, with a gentle pastoral trio at its core, sounded jarring after the first two movements.

The finale was more freewheeling, drawing on other Schubert scores (an unfinished piano sonata and the "Marche Héroïque" for piano four hands). Its nicer touches included woodwind lines that vaguely mirrored those of the opening movement, although its dominant effects were speed and fury.

The movement gave Mr. Jurowski a wonderful way to show off the orchestra's precision and heft, but it put this completion on a different planet from the two graceful movements Schubert wrote before setting the score aside.

Each concert included one of the Brahms Piano Concertos. On Saturday Stephen Hough was the soloist in the D minor Concerto (Op. 15), and true to form, he played with an impetuous, forceful touch that gave his reading - or at least the outer movements - an electrifying quality that Mr. Jurowski and his players matched. The Adagio, by contrast, was oddly passionless at first, but once Mr. Hough warmed to it, he gave it an appealingly supple account.

In the B flat major Concerto (Op. 83) on Sunday, Garrick Ohlsson took a patrician view of the rich piano writing, creating breadth while avoiding bluster. His performance was a study in unleashing a powerful sound with no wasted movement: he made it seem as if he were moving through the thick-textured scoring without breaking a sweat. The orchestra, except for momentarily sour opening horn passages, produced a brilliant, assertive sound, suffused with a particularly Russian sense of drama.

Mr. Jurowski closed the Sunday concert with a hot-blooded, palpably emotional performance of the Tchaikovsky "Pathétique" Symphony (Op. 74), full of unusual and welcome touches. In the opening movement, instead of striving for coherence, Mr. Jurowski stressed the episodic quality of the writing, offering the music as a stream of fevered reminiscences painted on a vast canvas. He drew extraordinary effects from the orchestra, including swirling string and woodwind figures in the Allegro molto vivace, along with superbly balanced brass playing and full-throttle percussion.

His tempos were unusually fluid throughout, at no cost in ensemble tightness. And he gave the dark finale such a plangent reading that it seemed, at times, as if this symphony might have been Mahler's principal sourcebook.