Viktoria Postnikova, piano
Yuri Temirkanov, conductor
Prokofiev, Cinderella Suite (excerpts)
Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique”
Remains of the day.
The socialist romance still lingers around Royal Festival Hall, whose lower reaches are done up with cafes and bars open to the outside, welcoming jostling crowds in flip flops and t-shirts. Concertgoers gingerly thread their way through this perpetual beach party, trying not to look elitist in polished brogues and Stella McCartney tops. I was defying jet lag to hear the elegant Philharmonia play its last concert of the season under Yuri Temirkanov, and happily, the music delivered even more than it promised. Temirkaonov and his younger peer, Valery Gergiev, are the twin pillars of post-Soviet conducting. For any rival to poach on their private reserve – all of Russian orchestral music – runs the risk of serious embarrassment.
Royal Festival Hall has survived its youth as Fifties functionalism to become midcentury modern, a nice metamorphosis not achieved by its neighbour on the South Bank, the National Theatere, which could have been airlifted intact from industrial Potsdam. The mood of RFH is quite cheerful. Chrome-clad boxes float over the stalls, looking like a popular screensaver of flying toasters. The royal box sits next to them, presumably as a scientific way to measure how much dust settles on empty seats in a year. The bad acoustics have been dressed up in the recent lavish refurbishment but have not turned into anything marvellous. The tried-and-true shape for the world’s great concert halls is a narrow shoebox. RFH is shaped more like a rolltop desk, the already dry sound getting more squeezed at the narrow back end. The warm heart of an orchestra’s sonority runs from the higher range of the cellos up through the lower woodwinds and violas. Sadly, this whole section is muted, while snarling brass leap at you like Dobermans.
Great musicians soar over physical drawbacks like these. Temirkanov is the last living inspired conductor I had yet to hear, and it came as a relief in the ebullient opening number, an abridged suite from Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet, that he would surpass his superlative recordings. The music is cotton candy braced with percussion to imitate the clock striking midnight and waltzing strings imitating Viennese Gemütlichkeit. Temirkanov conducts with casual sweeps of the hand and few cues for entries, but something magical happens inside. The musicians were left almost to wander, giving them ample room to express themselves – always a good idea when it comes to London orchestras, who never need browbeating — but precision was there when it counted. George Szell would have made the violins stay after school for the way they executed some of Prokofiev’s more frenetic scurrying; I doubt that non-martinets minded.
The audience anticipated a roller-coaster ride with Boris Berezovsky as soloist in the brazen, show-offy Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2, but he cancelled, and what we got was more like a train backing out of the station. Viktoria Postnikova is an, um, senior artist who stepped in at the last moment. The work’s glittering demands were once hers to master, but no longer. Soviet pianists tended to divide into two groups, poets and handlers of heavy machinery. Postnivkova isn’t a poet. She looked relieved when the concerto came to an end, and the audience was warm in its appreciation of a brave try.
The concert’s true glory was the Tchaikovsky “Pathétique,” a work that never fails to be a touchstone for great conducting. It is indisputably the summit of Russian symphonies, and I wondered if Temirkanov, who has conducted it as often as the swallows return to Capistrano, would be able to take flight one more time. As it turned out, he gave a reading of shattering impact, all the more because he is so Ciceronian in his stoic command of eloquence. Or is he? When he turned around to accept the audience’s ovation, his face looked as drawn and grave as Max Von Sydow’s, and one could read a reluctance to take any credit at all. But we had to shower him with our gratitude. The success of any “Pathétique” lies with the violins, whose phrasing tells us how much the overtly gorgeous melodies really mean. Temirkanov phrased like Cortot playing Chopin, suggesting shadows even before the sun was dimmed.
This symphony, like Schubert’s “Unfinished,” says everything in two movements, the first and last, but unlike the “Unfinished,” they can’t be played next to each other. The effect would be like tearing open the chambers of the heart. This poses a problem for the conductor. He can’t afford to lose the tragic arc of the symphony, but he can’t let the two inner movements sound like mere refreshers, either. Temirkanov judged the balance perfectly. In the 5/4 waltz the rhythm was urgent, as if the violins wanted to round out every other bar but were too full of adrenalin to stop their headlong rush. The scherzo in the form of a march that builds in intensity was managed the opposite way, with anxious discipline that eventually broke ranks. The final triumphant shout should lead without pause into the grievous groans of the last movement, a volte-face as shocking as the moment in La Bohème when Musetta bursts into the scene of artists frolicking to announce that Mimi is about to die. Unfortunately, applause ruined the moment. Temirkanov strode over it, however, and this great Adagio worked its mournful catharsis.
Afterward, strolling across the Thames, the bridge packed with shouting soccer lads trying to convince one another that they owned the world, I thought about Tchaikovsky, who of course didn’t survive the “Pathétique.” For all of us, the world will end the moment we die. The personal and the cataclysmic will merge in the same flicker. How moving that Tchaikovsky could untangle the two, first giving us the demise of his world before he quietly, discreetly crept his lonely way out of it.