Vladimir Jurowski’s remarkable first outing, earlier this season, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra left expectations running quite high for the Russian conductor’s return to town on Friday. This time he brought with him the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which he has led since 2007, and a program of works by Shostakovich and Beethoven, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
Jurowski’s pre-concert interviews discussing his chosen program reinforced the sense of crisp intellectuality behind his music-making. On the podium, his gestures are cool and pointed, never a single motion wasted. In his earlier account of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony with the BSO, these qualities opened the gates to a performance of analytic depth and succinct fury. Friday’s performance overall, while not without some thrilling moments, did not prove as revelatory. It began with a somewhat uneven performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto with the soloist Vadim Repin.
This concerto is a work at once epic in scale and deeply personal in tone, particularly in its two harrowing slow movements. Repin, who can be a formidable violinist, was neither at his technical nor his interpretive best on Friday. Conductor and soloist seemed to be drifting in and out of distant sound worlds during the opening movement, rather than building a shared vision of this music’s alluring strangeness and desolation. Moments of uncentered intonation in the solo line also tended to distract.
The slow Passacaglia is the expressive heart of this vast work and here Repin’s playing gathered focus and strength, at least enough to sustain the intensity gathered over the movement’s enormous set of variations. The work’s finale arrives directly after a giant cadenza, and, in a welcome surprise, Repin chose to play Shostakovich’s rarely heard original version of the movement’s opening. The more typically played revised version — made by Shostakovich at the request of the work’s first soloist, David Oistrakh — gives the soloist a pause to breathe as the orchestra calls the movement to order. But Repin instead plunged in directly from the cadenza, the solo line cresting on its own adrenaline.
After intermission came Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in a tightly wound and ultimately rousing performance yet one that also brought moments of puzzlement. Jurowski seemed intent on crisply managing every detail, but not all of his ideas translated from the stage, and a certain blurriness of ensemble work made it seem at times that the musicians were watching the podium more closely than they were listening to each other.
Jurowski did manage to achieve some striking nuances of articulation and phrasing in the first two movement. Elsewhere, the cool precision of his approach seemed to come at the expense of horizontal line and a larger sense of atmosphere, as in the sublimely mysterious final passage of the Scherzo, which should inhabit a kind of mesmerizing liminal space but here fell far short of that. The London players threw themselves boldly into the finale, Jurowski drawing out sharp jabbing accents, and restoring to the music something of the work’s primal roar. It should be fascinating to see what this conductor achieves when he returns to the BSO this summer with Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony alongside works by Wagner and Liszt.