Seen and Heard
International Concert Review
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,
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
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
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.
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