It’s not too often that a concerto eclipses the impact of the symphony on an orchestral program—especially when that symphony is Beethoven’s immortal Fifth—but this was exactly the case at the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s first of two concerts at Avery Fisher Hall. Led by their engaging music director of seven years, Vladimir Jurowski, the orchestra was in brilliant form in both the Beethoven and dazzling showcase of the afternoon, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto.
Written for the famous Russian Jewish violinist David Oistrakh, Shostakovich expanded the formal scope of the concerto, eschewing the standard three-movement form in order to pen a sinister four-movement symphonic statement lamenting the plight of Russia’s oppressed Jewish community—a harshly political condemnation that kept the piece unperformed until after Stalin’s death in 1953.
Soloist Vadim Repin imbued the work with a sense of Soviet authenticity, versatile enough to dig into the growling low passages before crafting rich phrases in the highest of the instrument’s registers. Although it took the lengthy opening Nocturne for Repin’s sound to truly declare itself, it was well worth the intense build-up, as the third movement’s Passacaglia and Burlesque finale showcased not only a virtuosic technical foundation, but also a sophisticated sense of line.
Returning to the podium for the Beethoven on the second half, Jurowski took complete control of the ensemble, taking a more legato and Romantic approach that showed off the finest assets of his group. With a technique built on small yet precise baton motions, Jurowski was able to turn the orchestra from blistering fortes to shadowy pianos on a dime.
The strings took center stage throughout, with violas and cellos giving a polished account of the second movement’s opening melody, and the double basses climbing up and down the Scherzo’s devilish main theme. Even in the most enigmatic of passages, as the Scherzo melody winds itself into the sun-drenched arrival of the fourth movement, Jurowski perfectly controlled the pacing of the crescendo and made the major-key arrival a moment of true edge-of-your-seat suspense—a tall order indeed, given the universal knowledge that audiences have of the warhorse composition.