"Italians play music emphasizing its melodic flow; Germans
find weight in the harmonies."
"French composers and conductors favor a reedy orchestral
Listeners and commentators alike rely on these and other such
generalizations - one might call them stereotypes - to help
classify and describe performances and sounds. As with most
generalizations, there's a kernel of truth to them: there are,
in fact, national styles and traditions of performance, passed
on among musicians from one generation to the next, which have
evolved over the years in response to music's perceived requirements.
Still, every performance is unique, and won't necessarily conform
to our preconceived ideas.
Thus, the prevailing expectations for Russian string playing
- and, perhaps, for Russian understanding of the Mahler style
- might have portended a dreadful Adagietto movement
here: thick in tone and texture, burdened with a throbbing vibrato,
weighted down with heavy sentiment. In fact, the Adagietto
proves the best movement in Temirkanov's concert recording.
The conductor plays the movement spaciously, but he draws the
string lines clearly, without sentimentalizing them. The contrasting
middle section stays in tempo; at 5:06, the players use very
little vibrato, making for an anticipatory stillness. The return
of the main theme is gently wistful. The bass pizzicatos during
the ritard at 8:30, while soft enough, unfortunately land with
a heavy "thunk".
For much of its duration, particularly early on, Temirkanov's
finale is nearly on this level. After the opening fragments,
the horn launches the first theme-group forthrightly. The low
strings are as resonant as you'd expect from Russian players,
but their little dotted figure at 1:06 really dances.
The fugue that follows moves at a nice clip, but with good control;
it doesn't match the unbuttoned, rustic joy of Tennstedt (on
the EMI analog recording), but it's enjoyable on its own terms.
I particularly enjoyed the in-tempo, undulating treatment of
the Grazioso passages, at 3:48 and again at 6:48, which
retro-fit a theme from the Adagietto into the Finale's
rhythm and motion, though lumbering basses mar the start of
the second one. On the down side, numerous, brief moments of
imprecise co-ordination; unimportant in themselves, take a cumulative
toll on the players' concentration, as do some of Temirkanov's
clumsy rhetorical touches, so ensemble becomes increasingly
skittish. In the coda - where the conductor favors the trombones
in the balance in a cheap, applause-courting way - the strings'
last big downward run is a cloudy, ill co-ordinated rumble.
The funeral march that begins the symphony is rather interesting,
not because of Temirkanov's propensity for unmarked tenutos
on upbeats, applied so regularly as to devolve into an irrelevant
mannerism, but because of its pervasive melancholy (as opposed
to sombre or elegiac) tone - a distinctly "Russian"
take on the music. The Scherzo, after an iffy start,
with horn and clarinets diverging on the little upward scale,
has many lovely things in it: the conductor draws the various
episodes, especially the more lightly scored ones, with a nice
plasticity and feeling for instrumental color, eliciting plenty
The second movement, admittedly problematic in any case, misfires,
and not because of considerations of style, idiomatic or otherwise.
Temirkanov's inconsistent recorded work - I've not seen him
conduct in the flesh - leaves the impression of an imaginative
interpreter whose stick technique isn't up to his conceptions.
His wholesale rubato in the Rachmaninov Second Symphony (EMI)
was compelling, a Scheherazade with the New York Philharmonic
(RCA) hard-edged but imposing. Conversely, the Symphonie
fantastique (RCA) was a string of ensemble disasters, beginning
with the first bar, where the winds come unstuck during the
Such control issues - the sort of thing to which I've alluded
in passing elsewhere in the performance - unfortunately end
up dominating the second movement. The opening bass gestures,
an imprecise, indiscriminate rumble - you can't really make
out their rhythm or shape - set the tone for the following turbulent
tutti and, indeed, for most of what follows. The violins
are slurry and far from incisive at 0:44; the cellos want to
run the quarter notes all through the Bedeutend langsamer
second theme, with blurry definition; and nervous co-ordination
lapses abound. Even when Temirkanov's feel for color comes into
play - note the dusky, woodsy cellos at 4:12 - the effect is
emotionally reticent. Only in a few isolated moments - the mournful
horns at 5:20; the insinuation of the woodwinds into the texture
at 10:30 - does the conductor manage effectively to project
In ordinary frontal stereo - I didn't hear the Super Audio layer
- headphone listening reproduces masses of sound from the brass
choir with a thrilling brilliance and depth. Over speakers,
however, the effect is less marked, and one becomes aware that
the strings, whether in the mix-down or in the actual playing,
are backwardly balanced.
Temirkanov's performances are never boring, but this one won't
wear well. Stick with your own favorites, mine being Mehta (Decca
or Warner/Teldec), Barbirolli (various EMI issues), Solti's
analog (Decca), and the aforementioned Tennstedt.