The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Monday, March 28, 2011
Yuri Temirkanov, Conducting
Nikolai Lugansky, Piano
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18
Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade, Opus 35
A recent San Francisco visit of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, grandly led by Yuri Temirkanov and featuring Nikolai Lugansky as piano soloist, is a fine example of why one should make a point of hearing orchestras on tour.
Present-day listeners are frequently tempted to overgeneralize about music in Russia, knowing only Valery Gergiev or some of the younger conductors currently recording in the UK. Gergiev’s brand of intensity sometimes invites lurid cliches about Russian “barbaric splendor.” Indeed, there have been Gergiev concerts where passion seemed to destroy luster and raw perspiration carried the day—an approach more bear than bearnaise. So it is enlightening to encounter in the St. Petersburg Philharmonic the continuation of a highly charged but more patrician attitude towards music-making. One recalls that Mravinsky and his “Leningrad Philharmonic” cast a grand Karajan-like shadow over the Russian-speaking musical world for forty years. Something of that special dignity remains. Indeed, an almost nineteenth-century manner.
The St. Petersburg Philharmonic presents to the world with a formality rare now—in full white-tie-and-tails. Onstage, the orchestra seats itself at the last moment and all at once, welcoming a hirsute concertmaster who bears an uncanny sculptural resemblance to Franz Liszt. Most of the strings, including basses and timpani are richly arranged stage left, an increasingly common practice, leaving the right corner appearing slightly bereft. Yuri Temirkanov and Nikolai Lugansky emerge from the wings with diplomatic courtliness. On the podium, set half askew, where both soloist and audience can view him more clearly, Temirkanov presides with a pair of glasses halfway down his nose, like an ambassador benignly reading the morning cables. He conducts batonless and with a fatherly insouciance, as though not really needed, frequently cueing without seeming to beat time. But behind this is an old world sense of occasion and an acomplished showman’s ability to garner enthusiasm through charm.
The Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto has been popular with audiences for so long that no one remembers to ask why. The piece is taken for granted, as though being melodious were determinative. But Rachmaninoff’s real genius lies in his ability to make gloomy music kinetic, and hence paradoxically exhilarating. Once set in motion, the dark chords which open the concerto become a powerful underground river of sound, tunnelling swiftly into a hidden world of dimly illuminated events. The great virtue of Rachmaninoff’s capacity for atmosphere is that it moves! Bruckner could have learned something from him.
The rich woolly sound of the St. Petersburg musicians combined with Nikolai Lugansky’s pedalled romanticism proved to be a magic recipe for recreating the spirit of the piece. Temirkanov supplied a powerful swing in the opening paragraphs, and there was a comfortable, bold quality about the performance throughout. Lugansky proved to have an unusually independent left hand, frequently encouraging it to surge or linger behind, at times nearly creating syncopations on its own. His slow decoupling walk down to the end of the first movement development was masterfully loose and natural. This is not an orchestra which gravitates to inaudible pianissimi and neurasthenic gloom. The famous horn call there was dark and strong, supported by gorgeous rustling sounds in the strings. There was still a touch of old-style vibrato in the St. Petersburg playing, and if it sounded as though you were listening through a cardboard tube, the sonority seemed idiomatic.
It was at special moments like these that one experienced Temirkanov’s personal brand of showmanship and stagecraft. Unlike Valery Gergiev, who conducts nearly every effect with fingers aflutter, as though surrounded by sparrows competing for breadcrumbs, Temirkanov might twitch his fingers only to elicit a special harp arpeggio, as he would a bit later in Scheherazade. Much more commonly, he cued with index finger and thumb coming together, little finger held teacup-high. It looked for all the world as though he were trying to project rabbit-shadows on the wall or capture flies in slow motion. But there was something immensely powerful about the competence of these seemingly casual signals: near motionlessness—and everything happening. Sometimes Temirkanov would project the “rabbits” upside down. At other times he would appear to be “doing the wave.” Once in a blue moon he would hug himself like a teenager pretending to be kissed by someone, then open the fullness of his arms to the music. Unpredictable. Twinkly eyed–as one could frequently perceive from the odd angle of the podium. And ultimately charming.
The Rachmaninoff played out with fine portamento touches in the slow movement and appropriate energy in the finale. One was struck throughout by the massiveness of the approach and again by the occasional anomaly of sound. For instance, the cymbals in the St. Petersburg Philharmonic were unusually quiet–not the sort of thing one often considers–but the combination of cymbals and brass had a dark muffled quality—much more like sneezing than is usually the case. (Listeners owning Temirkanov’s recording of the Shostakovich First Symphony will note the same effect.)
A vibrant Scheherazade followed intermission, revealing Yuri Temirkanov at his most intuitive. The trumpets sounded nearly Soviet this time, and the grand violin theme of Scheherazade was so voiced as to suggest the presence of ghost sonorities, almost like Ives. In the movement portraying the Kalandar Prince, the harpist managed at one point an uncanny similarity to the balalaika. It is moments like these which remind the listener who really owns a work. It would not be impossible for an American orchestra to find as much to say in Scheherazade—but it would be unlikely.
The evening concluded its romance of the Princess with a perfect encore: Elgar’s “Salut d’Amour”. The performance was a masterpiece of elegant rubato. No two bars in the same tempo. And it occurred to me at this realization why Temirkanov is beloved. This is the Russian Colin Davis. He infuriates for the same reasons. But he is so prototypically of his nation that one could scarcely dislike him for it without disliking oneself.