A week ago today, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Yuri Temirkanov lead the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic.
The Saint Petersburg Philharmonic is probably Russia’s finest orchestra. For fifty years (1938-1988), the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic was led by Yevgeny Mravinsky, the man responsible for turning the orchestra into Russia’s most important symphonic ensemble. At Mravinsky’s death, Temirkanov succeeded Mravinsky; Temirkanov has remained conductor of the orchestra ever since.
The Saint Petersburg Philharmonic is not a virtuoso orchestra in the sense that the orchestras in Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia are virtuoso orchestras. The Saint Petersburg Philharmonic is a fine body, but its level of ensemble would be of garden-variety standard among American orchestras.
Further, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic lacks a distinctive sound. The orchestra’s strings are the glory of the ensemble—they produce a deep, rich sound with more than a little color—but the woodwinds are variable in quality and the playing of the brass is not polished. When all 100 musicians play, orchestral balance is not perfect—and sophisticated layering of sound and texture is clearly not one of the orchestra’s goals.
The concert began with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture”. Temirkanov conducted a serious, dignified account of the score—it was more than mere showpiece in his hands. The processional chants that begin the overture were played more slowly than usual, and with more gravitas; one could almost visualize religious icons and smell incense of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. The Allegro that followed was suitably brilliant and exciting, with the climax perfectly placed.
A performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 followed. The soloist was Alisa Weilerstein.
The orchestra gave a magnificent account of the score. Shostakovich’s music must be in the musicians’ blood—they offered the freest and most natural performance of the score I have ever heard.
The Concerto has an unusual instrumentation: double winds, a single horn, strings, timpani and celesta. The horn and timpani are called upon to play virtual duets with the soloist. Full orchestra is used sparingly; the ensemble is asked to weave in and out of the lightly-scored composition, and is seldom required to appear at full strength.
The Concerto is a difficult score for an orchestra to master, what with its many transitions. The members of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic were in total command of the work—their playing displayed ease, confidence and conviction, all in abundance.
Weilerstein was inaudible much of the afternoon. The Concerto is a series of personal utterances for the soloist, tempered with isolated public outbursts, and only the outbursts involve full orchestra. Issues of audibility should not arise in this work.
Yet Weilerstein was barely audible when unaccompanied, even in the lengthy third-movement cadenza. She disappeared completely in passages involving full orchestra. I wonder whether Weilerstein plays an inferior instrument.
Weilerstein must have an Actors’ Equity card. She performed a series of moon faces for the audience while she performed. She also engaged in unnecessary and ostentatious playacting gestures when applying bow to strings.
The disparity between the largeness of Weilerstein’s onstage dramatics and the smallness of her sound was disconcerting.
After intermission came Brahms’s Symphony No. 4.
Last Sunday was the fifth time Josh and I had heard Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in concert since September 2007. In order, we had heard performances by Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Neville Marriner and the Minnesota Orchestra, Fabio Luisi and the Dresden Staatskapelle, and Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Temirkanov conducts the music of Brahms more freely than Central European conductors—he offers a great deal of rubato, most of it convincing, and he invariably slows for transitions, not always successfully—and his Brahms has greater warmth than the Brahms of any other active conductor.
The performance was a good one. The first-movement was a little too expository and a little too lacking in inevitability, with the climax—the syncopated double-statement of the eight-note theme—not overwhelming as it must be. The Andante, on the other hand, was perfection.
The Scherzo might have been more vividly characterized, and the Passacaglia should have been more dramatic. Nonetheless, it was a performance of the Brahms Fourth that I would be happy to encounter again.
The orchestra offered the standard Temirkanov encore: “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”. It was beautifully and movingly done.