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Davies Hall, San Francisco
Monday, March 3, 2014
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov, conductor
Vilde Frang, violin
Rossini – Overture to The Barber of Seville
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Opus 63
Rachmaninoff – Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Opus 27
What on earth do you say, when you have run out of violin superlatives?
Here in San Francisco we are fortunate to experience in fairly rapid succession the world’s great violinists, especially the young ones rising. (And sometimes the older ones falling: Pinchas Zukerman’s recent rough and scrapie visit with the Royal Philharmonic was disappointing—a soaring career tumbling for the nets). But it has generally been a feast: James Ehnes, Simone Lamsma, and now Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang, just to name a few. Given the level of excellence these days, it is sometimes hard to pick a winner and know what winning means. All are remarkably good. But I’ll go out on a limb here.
Vilde Frang, who played her Davies Hall debut last night, is simply the greatest violinist I have heard since Heifetz. It is as clear as that, and I’ll stand by these words. In the 1970s, partial to refined playing and beauty of tone, I championed Kyung Wha Chung for similar reasons: a smallish, fleet tone, light vibrato and a subtle musical approach. Wonderful as she was, the sheer ease of every note Vilde Frang plays on her 1709 “Engleman” Stradivarius surpasses anything I ever heard from Chung. I have never experienced before a violinist with such a perfectly gorgeous and even satin tone, light but rich, such intuition for getting meaning out of a breathless pianissimo, and an equivalent ability to project power when needed without the slightest sound of scrape or effort.
The Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto has its pitfalls, especially the temptation to widen vibrato in the first movement’s romantic second theme. It can “overthrob” the listener. But not here. Vilde Frang managed a slight hesitation at the beginning of the phrase which carried the deepest nostalgia soaring over a simple and effortless vibrato—as Heifetz might have—except for his being a fundamentally cold personality in a way Frang is not. And despite the passion here, Frang managed to make the entire concerto a jewel of elegant design and inspiration. In this she was admirably assisted by Yuri Temirkanov and his burnished St. Petersburg Philharmonic. They were clearly on the same page. No ugly sounds.
Indeed, though this review begins somewhat backwards, I should hasten to say that the evening was characterized by stunning refinement from all quarters. The Soviet Union did its orchestras no favors for many decades, recording them in such a brash and electrocuted manner as to make it nearly impossible for a listener to think “refined” and “Russian” in the same breath. But the St. Petersburg Philharmonic was Mravinsky’s patrician orchestra and Temirkanov, Music Director now for twenty-six years, has maintained the tradition. With a rich and dark string tone, velvety winds and western sounding brass (i.e. minus blare and vibrato), the ensemble resembles nothing so much as the Dresden Staatskapelle in its beauty of tone. St. Petersburg has a darker sound than our own SF Symphony, but despite an enormous foundation on ten double basses, remains transparent and flexible.
Indeed, I sensed throughout the evening a wonderful sense of reverence in all quarters. Clearly, the orchestra thinks of itself as an institution. And it behaved like one, coming onstage all of a piece. The only dissonance was the disturbing and anomalous resemblance of the Concertmaster to television actor Michael Landon! But Yuri Temirkanov, himself looking ambassadorial, presided more than he conducted, adjusting his glasses repeatedly with the timeless serenity of a pope. Leading without baton, Temirkanov cued when necessary from the score, with a less annoying version of Gergiev’s finger fluttering. But mostly he leaned forward with palm graciously extended, as though to hold the door for an important guest. His eyes twinkled with humor and his body language was proud but deferential. It was a bit like the President of Tiffany’s presenting a jewel case to an important customer in closed session. Pride combined with aristocratic dignity. It was all the conducting the orchestra really needed.
The evening didn’t exactly begin with dignity. There were pickets outside the hall demonstrating about Ukraine. And just before the first note of Rossini was played, a young woman draped in red white and blue stood up from just above the trombones and screamed something to Temirkanov about women. (Despite numerous female players in the orchestra, Temirkanov has gotten himself in hot water with some pre-feminist remarks. Best to utter cliches these days about the “Russian soul” than to take a stab at the female soul, say I).
That episode was handled with quick security action, snickers from the audience and ironic applause from Temirkanov, as the demonstrator was ushered out the nearest double doors. If anything, the listeners were in better humor because of it. It broke the ice for the Barber of Seville overture, which I have never heard done better, all velvet and quiet power.
When Vilde Frang came onstage, a tall and beautiful light brunette, the effect she made was subtly understated. There is a tendency to wow with a bright dress, and many a young female violinist brings gasps to the audience with her mere entrance from the wings. But Frang dazzled with an elegance to match that of the orchestra. The dress she wore was in muted tones of turquoise and rose and seemed inspired by the sort of curtains you might find in an 18th century manor house. Her appearance blended perfectly with the elegant tapestry of sound and one’s awareness of it as something precious and historical. And similarly, her behavior onstage was enjoyably reserved, when she was’t playing—a soft smile perhaps—but no narcissistic dancing, swaying or swooning. The audience went crazy, anyway, as well they should have.
I was sitting next to two concert-trotting British ladies of a certain age, as we got ready to hear the Rachmaninoff. They didn’t know the piece, so I suggested they would wonder at first where the piano was, but then be ravished by the slow movement with its romantic clarinet melody. And so it was. Temirkanov ably avoided the first movement’s sense of sameness with heartfelt rubato in the more emotional moments. And a fine clarinet player and skilled timpanist helped bring the rest of the piece alive. Except for the nostalgic moments, it was a perfectly straightforward rendition.
At the close, after addressing the crowd’s roar from all directions, Temirkanov quietly applauded the listeners. But once again, I thought, he did so in a subtly deferential way. Gennady Rozhdestvensky, in the Russian manner, would have gesticulated widely to the audience with his arms ready to embrace and swept them repeatedly towards his chest, as though raking in chips from a roulette table and asking for more! It is the sort of gesture that reminds one of Soviet bluntness—Khrushchev’s shoe banging at the United Nations…But Temirkanov did no such thing. He doesn’t trade in ego, it seems. He might as well have been Bernard Haitink.