Think for just a moment of composers least in need of an advocate, and you'll hit on Rachmaninoff early in the list. It is, in fact, his irrepressible popularity that disqualifies him in some quarters - still - as an innovator of any consequence.
But Vladimir Jurowski takes the long view. Building on a 2007 Isle of the Dead that rippled with meaning, the Russian conductor brought an all-Rachmaninoff program to the Philadelphia Orchestra that nailed the case for the music not being what you think it is. Hollywood and a handful of whistleable tunes have tricked you. Rachmaninoff is both more sophisticated and stylistically pioneering than the gavel of history has granted.
Consider this corrective: The Bells, the choral symphony Jurowski led Friday night, debuted in 1913, a significant year in modernism, yet its emotional signals would sound absolutely 2014 in a film score today. And this: The last movement of the Piano Concerto No. 4 has less traditionally tuneful material than much of Shostakovich, whose music it anticipates.
Yes, there is a fourth piano concerto. The Philadelphia Orchestra has championed it in performance and on disc with a pianist who knew it well - the composer - but Jurowski's interpretation with pianist Alexey Zuev was even more lucid and emotionally charged than the recorded legacy. Jurowski pared back textures, granting Zuev the spotlight, much needed in a piece so busily about the orchestra. They both agreed that tautness perfectly suited the terse first movement.
Jurowski offers a compelling Rachmaninoff performance-practice philosophy that drops self-indulgent sentiment. He was to open with 10 songs in orchestrations by his grandfather, film composer Vladimir Michailovich Jurowski. When tenor Vsevolod Grivnov canceled, the conductor replaced the group with just three songs and a lean, flexible performance of the popular Vocalise for reduced orchestra. Baritone Sergei Leiferkus - he of the wide vibrato and deep, Boris Godunov of a voice - took on "Aleko's Cavatina" from Rachmaninoff's Aleko. Soprano Tatiana Monogarova applied her opulent sound to an aria from his Francesca da Rimini and one brief remnant from the original program, "How Fair This Spot." Jurowski gave guest principal hornist Julie Landsman a well-earned bow.
There's a magnificence in Rachmaninoff's unexpected harmonic progressions that leads directly to the soul, and Jurowski has a sensitivity for unspooling this quality with enormous impact. He did not wallow in The Bells, even if Poe's text, read between movements by actor Sherman Howard, broke momentum. The youthful Westminster Symphonic Choir was crisp and unified enough, though their big moment in the third movement fell short of real terror. Tenor Viktor Antipenko was the brilliant voice of the opening silver bells. Rachmaninoff added layers of meaning not suggested by Poe, especially in the second movement, about wedding bells. Rapturous, yes, as beautifully captured by Monogarova. But about those ticking pizzicatos: to composer and conductor, they were the sands of time - little noticed, but always slipping.