St Petersburg Philharmonic brings Russian luxury to Dublin

RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s studied take on Mendelssohn and Brahms

Yuri Temirkanov with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic at the NCH: “The playing is as pliable as you could wish for”

Yuri Temirkanov with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic at the NCH: “The playing is as pliable as you could wish for”

 

The Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, were back at the National Concert Hall last week doing what they do best: playing Russian music. 

The orchestra has given seven concerts in Ireland, the first as the Leningrad Philharmonic, at the NCH under Mariss Jansons back in 1987, after which they recorded Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony there for Chandos Records. The orchestra’s next three Irish concerts, under Temirkanov, celebrated the opening of the Waterfront Hall in Belfast in 1997. Just two non-Russian works, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, made it into their programmes. 

This is not a bad thing. All-Russian programmes are popular all over the world. The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra offers more at the end of the month, when Alexander Vedernikov conducts two all-Tchaikovsky nights during which Barry Douglas will perform all of the composer’s works for piano and orchestra (Friday, February 24th and Saturday, February 25th).

But an orchestra that has the calibre and musical heritage of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic obviously brings something special to bear on the repertoire that is closest to it. So much so that last week its playing had me thinking of the Trobriand islanders, who not only have different words for yams in different stages of ripeness, but are reported to see those different-stage yams as effectively different objects.

The musical analogy that came into my mind had to do with the progression from ensemble to chamber orchestra to symphony orchestra. We can see and hear how they all relate. But, from the moment the first St Petersburg sounds came from the stage of the NCH, it was as if this was a different phenomenon to what’s normally meant by an orchestra, the kind of thing that needs a word of its own. 

Collective control

There are, simply put, a luxuriance and expansiveness to the Saint Petersburg sound that seems to have little to do with either volume or speed. There’s also a hugeness of tone, which is present by implication even when it’s not being demonstrated. And, although that might suggest something of a limitation when it comes to manoeuvrability, the opposite is the case. The playing is as pliable as you could wish for, the collective control of rubato a matter of wonder.

Most of the orchestra’s key characteristics were on display in the opening numbers from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus. The surging climax was grander than grand in a spell-weaving account of the Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia, and there was more sonic grandeur in The Victory of Spartacus.

Nikolai Lugansky was the able soloist for Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, his fullness of tone always ensuring that he could cut through the weight of the orchestra. But there are an effervescence and a wit to this music that on this occasion he didn’t quite catch.

Incredible as it may seem, it was Temirkanov’s immediate predecessor, Evgeny Mravinsky, who conducted the orchestra in the first performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in 1937, and they also made the first recording of the work the following year. The premiere was a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution, and the applause is said to have lasted for about half an hour.

Temirkanov and his players have a gripping way with this music, slightly austere in expression, but in a way that’s exhilarating rather than reserved. And, like an effect of a photographer’s lens, they can keep background and foreground in focus without ever making the musical picture seem cluttered or overdetailed. This was one of those performances in which everything just seemed unquestionably right.

Long-term view

The Saint Petersburg Philharmonic’s programme was an all 20th-century affair. The RTÉ NSO’s offering on Friday was all 19th-century and all German, and both soloist and conductor were English.

Alexander Shelley’s approach to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony was studied and sober. He took a long-term view in each piece, showing an unusual kind of care with dynamics, so that climaxes were never undermined by giving in early to the excitement of the moment.

There’s an interesting letter from the pianist, composer and conductor Hans von Bülow to Richard Strauss concerning the world premiere of the Brahms symphony with the Meiningen Orchestra, which had a core strength of about 50 players.

Bülow was surprised that the composer didn’t want more string players, and wrote to Strauss: “That he is against augmenting the strings for the No XIII fills me with a certain misgiving.” Bülow is elaborating on the joke that Brahms’s First is really Beethoven’s Tenth, by counting upwards to get No 13.

Shelley kept the orchestra very small for the Brahms and paced and scaled everything so that nothing ever seemed understated, though the effect was often tonally light.

Daniel Hope’s account of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto was mercurial, imaginative and full of character, if occasionally a little wayward in intonation. The eager, outgoing character of the piece was to the fore, and the music sounded as fresh as you could have wished for. 

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