St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor
Alisa Weilerstein, Cello
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Prelude to Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh
Dmitri Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No. 1
Johannes Brahms – Symphony No. 4
Within the past eighteen months, nearly all of the great European orchestras have brought their unique tradition of playing, characteristic sound, and, in some cases, significant programs, to Carnegie Hall. New Yorkers and whoever travelled to the City to hear these exceptional concerts were rewarded with the authentic sonority and tradition many of them know well from recordings, visits to the home halls, and, of course, past visits to Carnegie. The St. Petersburg Philharmonic brought something else along with them, so it seemed: their own acoustic. Their playing was enveloped in a unique atmosphere, recalling somewhat the archetypal Russian birch forest in a mist, not that there was any deficiency in clarity. They produced a cohesive sound, in which we were not so much aware of a characteristic quality of the individual sections, as of the various choirs contributing a subtle timbre to a whole. As for that mistiness, I imagine it had something to do with letting the resonance of the instruments, especially the strings, die out naturally over the rests. It should probably be no surprise that the musicians and their conductor, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, brought this off so easily in a strange hall—but they’ve been to Carnegie before, of course.
I’ve been keen to hear Yuri Temirkanov for some time, but cancellations and travels didn’t permit that until now. He was conducting Mahler and Russian music in January in Rome with the Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia, but I couldn’t be there on the right dates. He is, as Music Director of the Teatro Regio di Parma, a well-loved and admired figure in Italy. In any case, after reading Steven Kruger’s review of one of Temirkanov’s concerts with St. Petersburg in San Francisco and the report of the impression his Brahms Fourth made on Charles Warren, another contributor to the Review, I felt compelled to take the opportunity to hear it in New York. I was not disappointed.
Temirkanov has been in his position with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic since 1988, which should assure one of some unanimity between him and the orchestra, and that was apparent throughout the evening. The Philharmonic’s peculiar blendedness and their approach to phrasing and melodic line is something they have developed over years. It would take some delving into recordings for me to compare Temirkanov’s Philharmonic with that of his legendary predecessor, Yevgeny Mravinsky. I’ll take it as it is for now. He dispensed with a baton, leading the musicians with an understated intertwining of both hands, sometimes indicating a beat, usually relying on a more agogic gesture. With this, always seeming to proceed from a serene, understated core, Temirkanov spun wonderful extended lines of melody and inner voices. I would not hesitate to say that of living conductors he is the master of the long line, of organically breathing expression. This will invite comparison with Wilhelm Furtwängler, of course, and I’m usually sceptical of such comparisons, because contemporary critics and musicians rarely understand what Furtwängler was really about. Daniel Barenboim’s devoted study of Furtwängler’s compositions (which should be better known) and conducting, is quite at odds with his own musical instincts, which are entirely different. Barenboim has been saved by the strength of his own musical personality. If this were lacking, he might have developed into a mediocre imitator. As it has turned out Barenboim has given the world his own idiosyncratic approach. He is by no means the equal of Furtwängler, but he is an interesting voice in the orchestral world of today. Temirkanov evoked Furtwängler for me rather more immediately, although he is himself quite a different personality. There is that fundamental modesty and understatement that has nothing in common with Furtwängler’s emotional intensity. Under Temirkanov, the affect of the music, far from shaking the listener by the shoulders or even confronting him face to face, seems rather to come to him indirectly, from behind, laying an affectionate hand on him, and subtly communicating the deeply moving essence of the music. I was most conscious of this in the Brahms. The Rimsky-Korsakov and the Shostakovich showed other aspects of their music-making, also interesting and compelling.
The Prelude to the Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh is a rich and absorbing work for a six-minute curtain-raiser, but it is limited by its original function. Not a fully-developed overture in the classical or romantic sense, it effectively sets a folkloric-mystical scene for the ensuing opera. Its brevity fits the context, and perhaps it hints at some of the spare compositional methods that were to emerge in the generation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupils, but I did think the program had room for something more substantial. Still, the orchestra’s ability to create fields of tone and mood around the closely blent colors of the score, as they played it, was pleasing. The composer’s bird calls seemed perfunctory and even irritating. It’s not a masterpiece, but I imagine it’s an effective warm-up for the orchestra, helping them to attune themselves to the acoustics of the halls the visit on tour.
For Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, the orchestra chose to collaborate with one of the rising stars among young American musicians, Alisa Weilerstein. Although she made her Cleveland Orchestra debut in October 1995 at the age of 13, her regular appearances with major orchestras and in major venues are relatively recent, but her position as a cello virtuoso and an outstanding interpreter of the repertoire seems already secure. She is surely destined to become one of the best. The daughter of two distinguished musicians and teachers, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein and violinist Donald Weilerstein, she has played as part of a family trio for some years. She is a strong personality, to say the least, and was most definitely the center of attention in the concerto, although there was plenty of room for the audience to enjoy the fine writing for winds in the piece, so eloquently played by members of the orchestra, above all, Igor Karzov, the first horn. In his review of the St. Petersburg’s performance of Scheherazade in San Francisco, Steven Kruger noted a trace of the sweet vibrato traditional in Soviet orchestras before they began to travel more in the world. Mr. Karzov avoided this in the Shostakovich—which is only appropriate. This was, on the other hand, a rather romantic interpretation of the work. Ms. Weilerstein has restrained somewhat the emotional gestures and facial expressions she indulged in a few years ago, and her playing was technically rigorous, with perfect intonation and absolute control of the difficult part Shostakovich wrote for Mstislav Rostropovich. Here, it was more apparent than ever that the composition reached its most expressive and beautiful level in the slow movement and the long cadenza that followed, even to the point that the energetic final movement seemed to me rather superfluous. It seemed as if Shostakovich had tacked it on to balance the first movement and please Soviet critics, and his working out of the four-note motif in both seemed heavy-handed. I couldn’t help wondering if the concerto mightn’t have been more effective, if it ended, most unclassically, with the cadenza, but Shostakovich would never have done that. The great composer’s inspiration was in fact erratic, and the late ‘fifties was a particularly difficult time for him, both personally and politically. There is a striking drop in substance between the two inner movements and this one; on the other hand, that final movement makes its point through its occasionally biting irony, and that seemed to be absent in Ms. Weilerstein’s otherwise compelling performance.
Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is a supreme masterpiece that looks forward to the twentieth century as well as backward to Bach and his predecessors. Within Brahms’ own range of expression it has the monumentality of the First, the lyricism of the Second and Third, as well as a lapidary concision all its own. Without Brahms’ example the passacaglia/chaconne would not have become such an basic chestnut for the Second Vienna School. We enjoy it as much for its logical cohesion as for the rich harmonies which transport us to private, meditative corners of our own psyche. It is a wonderful thing if a conductor can expand the music through broad, flexible tempi, but it is a disaster if tempo fluctuations disrupt the flow of the music or expressive phrasing the cohesion of its line and texture. Temirkanov’s understated, but richly nuanced interpretation met all of these challenges triumphantly.
The imposing double-basses of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic added a tenebrous substratum to the atmospheric glow of the the higher instruments. Brahms’ gorgeous cello and viola parts flowed in and out of the overall texture without breaking their unanimity with the rest of the orchestra, and the winds were similarly cohesive. The orchestra’s sound was expansive, and Temirkanov’s vision of the work was grand as well as elegiac. He place no stress on clarity in the orchestral textures, but everything that was important could be heard. From the opening dialogue of sinking and rising two-note figures, Temirkanov extended the line into long phrases of great expression and nobility. In its discreet way this was a very deeply felt reading. Temirkanov’s tempi were indeed quite flexible, but the ritards and accellerandi were beautifully shaped and controlled, even to the Furtwänglerian stringendi toward the end of the first and the fourth movements. This was the most obvious reflection of Furtwängler in the performance, but it seemed entirely natural and unlike a self-conscious hommage.
Temirkanov adopted a very broad pace in the slow movement, allowing it to breathe, and expand to a slow, meditative ramble without actually approaching stasis. He really gave this movement its full value, reminding us that it is one of the greatest slow movements following Beethoven’s Ninth. The Scherzo was a delightful surprise. All too often this music can seem violent and anything but cheerful, but Temirkanov really seemed to relate to the music in a joyous way, and the Philharmonic, following his fast pace with more cohesion than precision, softened its insistent rhythms into an appealing dance-like measure. This was really one of the most successful executions of the movement I have heard. The fourth movement, the great chaconne followed all’attacca. While each eight-bar variation was clearly set apart, they were more like continuous waves in a single movement of the tide. In spite of his marked feeling for the gentler aspect of Brahms’ music, this was absolutely Allegro energico e appassionato, as Brahms indicated. While never entirely standing out as soloists like the winds in an American orchestra, the winds asserted themselves through the orchestral blend in the variations. The flute solo was subtly phrased, again not seeming so much a solo against an accompaniment as part of a texture. Most astonishing of all was the rich amber color of the variation that ensues at E in the score, in which trombones and bassoons carry the melody, immediately joined by the horns. Temirkanov stretched this out most beautifully. After intense stringendos, coming later than in Furtwängler, the chaconne came to its powerful and abrupt ending. This was, in color, design, and insight, the most satisfying reading of the Brahms Fourth I have have heard live.
There was a splendid encore, “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, played with great solemnity and a rich, tawny sonority—enough to humble any British conductor or orchestra. Need I say how much I’d like to hear Maestro Temirkanov and his orchestra play the entire work?