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Review: Shostakovich Shines With the St. Petersburg Philharmonic

By Joshua Rosenblum, Contributing Writer, March 6, 2017

Yuri Temirkanov, the venerable and much awarded Russian conductor, has led the storied St. Petersburg Philharmonic since 1988, during which period he also held posts with the Baltimore Symphony and the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He has long been one of his country’s leading musicians. It is thus somewhat disappointing to report that Temirkanov, at age 78, seemed to be somewhat past his prime in his March 4 appearance with the St. Petersburg musicians at Carnegie Hall. His lack of drive and dynamism impeded the success of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, despite the best efforts of the charismatic soloist, Nikolai Lugansky.

Something seemed missing right out of the gate, with the orchestral introduction to the first movement. The sound was rounded and polished, not aggressive and tempestuous the way it’s supposed to be. The attacks seemed muted to the point where the music was almost soothing. This meant that when Lugansky came in with the piano’s lush and beautiful opening theme, it didn’t sound like a contrast to what came before it. It sounded like Temirkanov and his players were taking a reverential, respectful approach to the piece. Lugansky, for his part, did everything he could to galvanize the proceedings. He dug into the music, playing with flair, verve, and impressive technique. At times it seemed like he overplayed and overpedaled in an effort to rouse the orchestra, although in the softer passages he delivered beautifully tapered phrases and nuanced carefully calibrated dynamics. It didn’t help matters that the chords at the end of the first movement between piano and orchestra were not together—the conductor’s fault.

Fortunately, the second movement was much better. Temirkanov drew a glowing, floating sound out of the orchestra, and Lugansky seemed to be playing his heart out. At the top of the third movement, Lugansky plunged in with an excitingly percussive declaration of the opening theme, which the Philharmonic did not match in their restatement. There was also some shaky ensemble work in the orchestral fugal passage towards the middle. In the end, Lugansky’s virtuosity and passionate approach carried the day, despite a seeming lack of orchestral support.

This did not leave me optimistic for Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (one of my favorite pieces), which followed after the interval. However, I needn’t have worried: the orchestra members took the lead in this piece, in a way they couldn’t in the concerto. The first movement’s opening theme unfolded with tragic beauty, as the players sank deeply into the pungent sonorities and plaintive sustained tones. The violins played the second theme as if it were a special, secret anthem of serenity, and the flute solo that followed was performed to gossamer perfection by Marina Vorozhtsova. The development section got off to an energized start, with Shostakovich’s brilliant use of the orchestral piano, and continued its roiling, inexorable build. Temirkanov seemed content to shape the music rather than drive it, but the results were galvanizing, regardless. Concertmaster Lev Klychkov’s sweetly mournful violin solo at the end of the movement nearly brought me to tears.

Temirkanov established an unusually bright tempo for the insidiously charming, waltz-like second movement, which gave it an edge-of-your-seat breathlessness. This seemed very much like a young man’s performance, and it was some of his best work of the night. The snare drum playing had magnificent snap, and Klychkov delivered another exquisite violin solo. Temirkanov was also a good fit for the expansive yearning of the epic third movement, and the musicians played their hearts out with opulent, often excruciating lyricism and orchestral blend of unblemished perfection. The climax with tremolo strings and xylophone doubling the piercing woodwinds was hair-raising.

The celebratory ending to the fourth movement has always been very controversial. Was Shostakovich giving us a cynical, ironic depiction of forced triumphalism? Or was he just trying to be a good Soviet citizen and glorify his country and its leader in the best way he knew how, while also rehabilitating himself after the harsh denunciation he received for his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk? Raging and vicious battles among academics and historians have been fought over this question. Seriously.

The real answer is that it doesn’t matter. It’s a thrilling piece of music, regardless of what various factions insist it really means, and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic plays it like no other group. After all, this is the very orchestra that gave the piece its world premiere almost eighty years ago in November, 1937 (although they were called the Leningrad Philharmonic during that era). Their pride and immersion in this magnificent, oceanic work, the most emblematic of all Russian symphonies, was palpable.

The sumptuous encore was an excerpt from Prokofieff’s Cinderella, luminous with luxuriant string tone, and right in Temirkanov’s comfort zone.

 

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St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall on March 4, 2017. Yuri Temirkanov, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor. Nikolai Lugansky, piano

BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 5

Encores:

MENDELSSOHN Song Without Words Op. 62 No. 1 (Lugansky)
PROKOFIEFF “Amoroso” from Cinderella

 

Cover: Yuri Temirkanov conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic; photo courtesy of St. Petersburg Philharmonic.


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