Despite last-minute sub, Jurowski’s Philharmonic program has fairy-tale ending

Thu May 22, 2014 at 2:24 pm
Nicola Benedetto made her New York Philharmonic debut Wednesday night in Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1

Nicola Benedetti made her New York Philharmonic debut Wednesday night in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1

Janine Jansen was the artist scheduled to play Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic this week. She was forced to withdraw, advised by her doctor not to play for a week, and one wishes her a speedy recovery.

Replacing Jansen, and making her Philharmonic debut, was Nicola Benedetti. The 26-year-old Scottish violinist released a precocious recording of the same work ten years ago, but it is nonetheless a challenging item to pull out of one’s bag at the last minute, especially when it’s not on her season repertory.

So it’s hard to fault Benedetti if at times the concerto felt, well, pulled out of the bag at the last minute. Her playing certainly wasn’t sloppy—there were fitful technically dicey moments yet everything held together. But even as it held together, the concerto’s trickier passages felt labored, practiced, as though they’d been dusted off but weren’t fully back in her fingers. Leading the Philharmonic, the Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski—also making his debut—made a thrilling hum out of the diffuse accompaniment.

Benedetti’s considerable artistry did come through when she was more at ease. She snuck into the opening with a taut, cutting tone that suited the piece’s ethereal quality, and while that stark character was her baseline, her variety of sound, from bare to gristly (often changed on a dime), was impressive and used to great effect. Moreover, she displayed a mature understanding of this very difficult music, following the lines clearly. Hopefully her next New York appearance will take place under more favorable circumstances.

Szymanowski’s concerto is barely over twenty minutes long, and an hour of selections from Prokofiev’s Cinderella made Wednesday’s program a leading candidate for most lopsided concert of the season. The way the Philharmonic was playing, they could have gotten away with an hour more.

Vladimir Jurowski

Vladimir Jurowski

Rather than using one of the canonical suites, Jurowski picked twenty-one of his own selections with an eye towards preserving the dramatic arc. The result was a fresh, idiomatic, thoroughly enchanting tour of the ballet. From the very first downbeat, Jurowski drew richly textured, vibrantly colored playing out of the orchestra, particularly from its strings, which swelled with emotion, often finding an almost syrupy viscosity.

Conducting a ballet score without any of the dancers puts even more of the responsibility for storytelling on the music and musicians. In Jurowski’s reading the characters of the piece were clearly depicted, from the cackling of the stepsisters in their dancing lesson to the noble grandeur of the Prince in his first entrance. The Prince’s two midnight gallops offered further highlights, perfectly balanced to create frantic urgency.

High energy kept the performance consistently alive, bringing thrumming suspense to Cinderella’s entrance at the ball followed by the dizzying, terrifying twirls of the main waltz. The dramatic progression of the piece was perfectly clear, climaxing with the maddening ticking and chiming of the clock at midnight.

Jurowski and the Philharmonic were at their best in the tender moments, achieving a dreamy, gauzy sweetness during Cinderella’s wistful daydream and swirling enchantment at the entrance of the Fairy Godmother. Their account of the Amoroso finale, some of the most memorable music in Prokofiev’s entire oeuvre, was simply breathtaking. Gleaming, surging with passion, it blissfully captured the surreal realization of the impossible love that drives the piece.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 2 p.m. Friday, and 8 p.m. Saturday.

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