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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky: Vadim Repin (violin) and Lynn Harrell (cello), St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Yuri Temirkanov, conductor; Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, November 19 and 20, 2004 (HS)

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic paid a weekend visit to San Francisco, bringing a familiar mix of Slavic masterpieces under the direction of Yuri Temirkanov. I almost wrote "baton of..." but this maestro prefers to lead the orchestra with his hands, a decision that pays off with warm, seamless sounds when it works. Ragged articulation dogged other moments, but the overall impression in the two concerts I heard was of a conductor and orchestra that have a remarkably high comfort level with each other.

That, it seems, can cut both ways. The opener for Friday's concert, Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 "Classical," muddied the details and limped through the first three movements before rushing headlong through the finale, barely avoiding a train wreck. Vadim Repin's brilliant solo turn on the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 fought against uncharacteristic languor from the orchestra. These musicians can play this music in their sleep, which may be why they seemed to be sleepwalking through it. Occasionally they jarred themselves awake to stab at a rhythmic flourish here or warm up the sound for a delicious halo there. They started to shake off the jet lag for the second half, however, traversing the familiar ground of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 that began to show just why this orchestra is held in such high esteem.

Saturday's concert opened with a four-movement suite from Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges, which found the band paying attention to details and getting the rhythms and articulations right. The slow movement, the love scene between the Prince and Princess in the opera, glowed with barely suppressed heat, and the jaunty march hit just the right tone of sarcasm without losing clarity.

Thus primed, Temirkanov and the orchestra teamed with cellist Lynn Harrell for a romp through the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 that was alternately searing and delicate. But the jewel of the two concerts was the red-blooded, clear-eyed, utterly natural and personality-filled Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique," which concluded the program.

From the first notes of the "Classical" symphony, it was clear something was off. The opening arpeggio was ragged and intonation was less than unanimous. There was nothing Haydn-esque about the muddy interior lines or the galumphing dance rhythms. Things improved little in the second and third movements, and the finale went by at such a rapid clip that some members failed to keep up. At least they all finished together.

The wonderfully hushed cloud of sound that began the violin concerto suggested that things were getting back on track. Repin stepped forward to articulate the first languid phrases with gorgeous sound, segueing seamlessly into the biting second theme. But here the orchestra held back, dragging the energy down. Repin struggled heroically, playing this difficult music with technical accuracy and real authority, but only occasionally did he get the support that would have made things take off as they should have. He returned for a long and sensationally played encore, Ysaÿe's unaccompanied Sonata No. 3.

There were some admirable solo turns in the Dvorak. The rhythmic bite that was in short supply in the first half of the concert made its presence felt at times, but Temirkanov got the best results in the quieter, subtler moments. The soft openings of the first and fourth movements created a palpable sense of gathering anticipation. The whole second movement Adagio achieved a long moment of beautiful repose, and the stately dance of the third movement finally found the orchestra in some unanimity about articulation. That carried over into the finale, which gathered its momentum gradually and with real class. It finished with a natural sense of arrival, not the blaze of glory most Western conductors go for. Temirkanov sent the audience home with a couple of short encores from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.

After the rousing Love for Three Oranges music, the second concert got down to business with the now gray-bearded American cellist Harrell digging into the juicy bits of Shostakovich's first cello concerto without missing any of the more lyrical elements. Here, finally, was agreement between soloist and orchestra about pace, stylistic flourishes, dynamics and rhythm. The long cadenza that separates the elegiac second movement from the finale unfolded with remarkable naturalism, and the finale was taut from start to finish.

Before playing the sarabande from Bach's Sonata No. 5 with ravishing delicacy, and an uncanny feel for the long line, for an encore, Harrell told the audience that he had spent the afternoon listening to a recording of his father, the baritone Mack Harrell, singing in a 1948 performance of La traviata at the San Francisco Opera, and introduced his first cello teacher, who was sitting in the first row.

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic gave the first performances of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" symphony in 1893, so it's not a stretch to say that the music is mother's milk to these spiritual descendents. It sure sounded like it. Unlike the episodic nature of the otherwise well played Dvorak the night before, this unfurled with utter inevitability. Here the problems that nagged at Friday's concert were banished and the result was music making that was immensely satisfying.

Temirkanov favored brisk tempos. Even the languorous opening measures, with the rumblings of the basses and bassoons, conveyed a subtle pulse that presaged what was to come. The gorgeous and famous second theme, played with barely contained ardor by the winds, had just faded into the ether when the development crashed the party with real verve.

If the 5/4 waltz shuffled more than it danced, the sound was magical, cohesive, warm, enveloping. Temirkanov treated the next movement as a true scherzo, not the heroic march one hears so often but a laugh-in-your-face, thumb-to-the-nose raspberry that skipped and galloped. Without pause, the opening chords of the finale pushed through the inevitable applause and swept in with passion and great concentration. It finally receded like a calm lake after a storm, but not until this orchestra's sound rose up as one, finally, and confronted an unimaginable tragedy with the sort of idiomatic music making only a long-standing ensemble can accomplish.

The unexpected encore was "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations, its nobility emerging gracefully through Temirkanov's beautifully shaped musical line, as unsentimental and intelligently drawn as the Tchaikovsky had been.

Harvey Steiman

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