recent San Francisco visit of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, grandly led by Yuri Temirkanov and featuring Nikolai Lugansky as piano soloist, is a fine example of why one should make a point of hearing orchestras on tour.
Present-day listeners are frequently tempted to overgeneralize about music in Russia, knowing only Valery Gergiev or some of the younger conductors currently recording in the UK. Gergiev's brand of intensity sometimes invites lurid cliches about Russian "barbaric splendor." Indeed, there have been Gergiev concerts where passion seemed to destroy luster and raw perspiration carried the day---an approach more bear than bearnaise. So it is enlightening to encounter in the St. Petersburg Philharmonic the continuation of a highly charged but more patrician attitude towards music-making. One recalls that Mravinsky and his "Leningrad Philharmonic" cast a grand Karajan-like shadow over the Russian-speaking musical world for forty years. Something of that special dignity remains. Indeed, an almost nineteenth-century manner.
When Zubin Mehta first came to public attention in the late 1960s, the Los Angeles public relations machine, flamboyant then as now, saw to it that he was acclaimed in very much the way Gustavo Dudamel is today. Here was a darkly handsome, exotic heartthrob, arriving just in time to rescue musical excitement in America from the departure of Leonard Bernstein for foreign shores. A certain amount of "Zubie Baby!" razzmatazz surrounded Mehta from the beginning and affected the way he was reviewed. But this was a distraction from the seriousness the young conductor actually represented to listeners. Mehta was the first of a new generation of music directors who openly admired the evocative and flexible musicianship of Wilhelm Furtwängler — who endeavored to explain it to the public — and who tried to imitate it in practice.
This week, the touring Mariinsky Orchestra, led by the ubiquitous Valery Gergiev, performed two evenings at Davies Hall in San Francisco. The first program, which I did not hear, was devoted to Prokofiev ballets and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. The second, more intriguing to me, presented Shostakovich's enigmatic final symphony, as well as an opportunity to assess the Rachmaninoff artistry of Denis Matsuev, who is being hailed these days as a pianist in the Horowitz tradition.
For a good part of this reviewer's life, it would seem, the world has been waiting for a truly great International French symphony orchestra. At mid-century, a general feeling was that the Boston Symphony under Sergei Koussevitzky and Charles Munch carried the torch for French music, ably assisted by Paul Paray in Detroit, Pierre Monteux wherever he could be found, and, on disc, by L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva.