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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Brahms: Denis Matsuev (piano), St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov (conductor); Barbican Hall, 23.11.2005 (GD)



The St. Petersburg Philharmonic (as it is now called) has a long history connected to the unique history of that city. Peter the Great's great work of art was the resplendent northern City itself which was to be distinctly Russian but also crossing over with the great cultural traditions of Western Europe especially those of France, Italy and Austro-Germany.  It is almost certain that had he not achieved quite the successes of 'Figaro' and 'Don Giovanni' in Prague in the 1780's Mozart himself would have commissioned a new opera for St. Petersburg.

All this astonishing cultural heritage is reflected in the composition and sound of the orchestra now. And on the evidence of this evening Yuri Temirkanov has taken on the mantle of his great 'Leningrad' predecessor Evgany Mravinsky with admirable skill and confidence. This was evident as he led us into the shimmering fantasy world of Prokofiev's Cinderella Ballet, First Suite. Cinderella was eventually performed in its entirety at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1945. Although Cinderella is far less performed and known than his Romeo and Juliet it is arguably more daring in it sheer grotesquery than the earlier ballet. The manic tarantella of the (Pas de chale) with offbeat canonic stretto effects from strings and brass constituted excellent material from which to demonstrate the orchestras virtuosic range. The Fairy Godmothers music provoked a strange atmosphere dissonant dance like string oscillations where a screeching piccolo cut through the texture. This sound world was punctuated and mirrored by an incredibly nuanced percussion backdrop. The combination of alternating bass-drum syncopations and side-drum rolls with cymbals in cross-rhythm sounded very close to the sound-scape of Berg's 'Lulu'. Mravinsky, who was almost fanatical about the integration and clarity of such textures, was an obvious influence here.

One of the reasons I found the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini so satisfying was the way in which Denis Matsuev and Temirkanov were in such complete dialogue with each other. The piece received its first performance in Philadelphia under Stokowski in 1934. Although Stokowski did a great deal to promote the music of Rachmaninov and other Slavic composers his old recording leaves a saccharin taste in the musical palate. He played the big lyrical melody in the 18th variation in the style of Hollywood melodrama. Sadly his successor Ormandy continued the bad tradition. But in the hands of Matsuev and Temirkanov this beautiful variation was played in contrast to but integral to the whole work. From the nimble deftness of the first variations Christopher Smart's 1762 poem about his cat 'Jeoffrey' kept coming to mind as 'elegant swiftness'. The old medieval Dies Irae chant was projected as part of the structure, which made its various entries in different tonal registers all the more sinister. Rachmaninov intended the Dies Irae to represent Paganini's 'evil one'. But with such powerful projection from pianist and orchestra it takes on a far wider and macabre significance.

Matsuev gave us a generous encore in the shape of a Liszt-like piano transcription on themes from Rossini's  Barber of Seville. Matsuev gave us a dramatic demonstration of pure pianistic virtuosity.

Like the Rachmaninov piece, Brahms’ Second Symphony op 73 also tends to be misunderstood. This is partly due to Brahms’ ironical allusions to his friends, before publication, that the new symphony would be of a most gloomy nature, so funereal that that the printed score would be embossed in black, the conductor would wear black gloves etc. But, as Hegel knew, there is some truth in the best irony and so it proves to be in the second symphony. It was Donald Tovey who first noted the dark side of this work 'the plunge' of the first movement development section into the remote key of  B minor; 'the sombre use of trombone chords in minor keys'; the clashes of F sharp minor and B major in the recapitulation etc. And I would add the poignantly ambiguous tonality of the beautiful horn cadenza towards the movement’s coda. All this was managed with great perception by orchestra and conductor the movement seemed to be traversed in one single sweep, although there was nothing rigid or contrived. The central trombone clash in C sharp minor had just the right rasp to effect the required shudder.

The Adagio non troppo, where Brahms requests a dialectical play of grace and gravitas, was manage again in a single sweep with particularly beautiful playing from celli and woodwind. The strings of the Leningrad orchestra (Lenin being an absolute enlightenment figure, and many Russians still referring to the City as Leningrad, or Petrograd) are as weighty as those of the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic but in contrast exude a more austere, less sweet, grainy quality ideal for this autumnal sounding music.  After the A minor, and B flat to B major tonal modulations of the Sturm und Drang middle section the movements coda returns to a threnody where violins and woodwind outline the lament in falling sequences accompanied by a triplet timpani figure which recalls 'ghosts' the funeral second movement of the composers earlier Requiem. So much for a symphony that is often glibly described as being full of light and 'sunshine'. The orchestra’s subtle timpanist was particularly adroit here in matching the multiplex dynamics (never above mezzo-forte) perfectly. The Allegretto grazioso was given a suitable degree of lift and charm and acted as a bridge to the symphonies jubilant finale.

Temirkanov and the orchestra unleashed an incredible degree of dynamic energy in this movement characteristically described by Tovey as permeated by 'Haydnesque high spirits'. The reading itself was much closer to Toscanini than some of the great German conductors who miss the Allegro con spirito of the piece. But even in this most 'spirited' of Brahms movements we have sudden minor key declensions in wavering string passages and woodwind intonations in remote threatening tonalities at the beginning of the development. Temirkanov articulated the jagged cross-rhythms at the recapitulation with all the rhythmic intensity and accuracy of a Toscanini. And the triumphant coda emerged from the whole structure rather than being grafted for 'grand-stand’ effect. 

Throughout the concert Temirkanov made constant reference to the score (in the manner of Mravinsky and Klemperer). His gestures were a model of economy without a baton. In the tradition of Mravinsky, in the coda it was the orchestra who generated the onrush of energy, with Temirkanov only giving the most essential and economic of gestures.

The conductor was generous in terms of encore items; he gave us a string orchestra arrangement of Schubert's 'Moments Musicaux' Op. 94, D. 780, No 3, Allegretto moderato, and the danse russe from the Nutcracker in a performance as full of rhythmic verve as those conducted by Toscanini and Mravinsky. This great orchestra played to a very appreciative packed hall.



Geoff Diggines


Further listening:


Prokofiev: Cinderella Suite One, Scottish National Orchestra Neeme Jaarvi (conductor): Chandos: CHAN 8511.  


Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini op 43, Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Cleveland Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor): Decca 440 653-2.


Brahms: Symphony No.2 op 73, NBC SO, Arturo Toscanini (conductor): (1952) BMG: GD 60258.


Brahms: Symphony No. 2 op 73, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, Evgeny Mravinsky (conductor): (1978) Russian Melodyia: 74321-25190-2.




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