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Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Brahms: St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Yuri Temirkanov (conductor), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 27.3.2011 (HS)

An unruly bunch, this gang from St. Petersburg. Under the apparently benign direction of conductor Yuri Temirkanov, this most Russian of orchestras blew into San Francisco with a sound that was the antithesis of the mellow roundness of most European symphony orchestras. Lacking the precision of the best American bands, either, the musicians simply geared up their individuality and tore into the music Sunday evening in the first of two concerts presented by the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers series.

Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture opened the program, the orchestra shaking off cobwebs until gathering itself into a cohesive machine for the final pages. A rip-snorting rendition of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 followed, the dazzling American Alisa Weilerstein as soloist. The evening concluded with Brahms' Symphony No. 4, which sounded almost as Russian as the first half did.

The highlight was the concerto, which this orchestra, then known as the Leningrad Philharmonic, debuted in 1960 with Mstislav Rostropovich as soloist and Evgeny Mravinsky on the podium. Judging by the many gray heads among the musicians, it wouldn't surprise me in the least to learn that some of them played in that concert. It certainly sounded as if they had a deep familiarity with the music.

Weilerstein whipped her end of the music into a frenzy of angst and anger, a stunning reflection of exactly what Shostakovich certainly had in mind. Her intensity and drive set the nervous first movement in motion from the first notes, building to ferocious climaxes. Yet she lacked nothing in technical clarity, every note articulated with bang-on intonation (which is more than can be said for the orchestra) even the high harmonics in the slow movement. Her sound in the lyric passages was warm and inviting.

The finale, which ramps up the intensity even further, built up tremendous momentum before snapping a string with about two minutes to go in the piece. The musicians managed to pick things up from where they left off, but it lost some of its power on the finish. Still, this was an incendiary performance of this music, as riveting as any cellist and orchestra I have ever heard.

The overture, full of individual moments, managed to showcase virtually all of the first chairs in the orchestra. Concert master Lev Klychkov, with his mane of long gray hair, took his moment in the spotlight with bravado. A percussionist must have thought he was playing a cymbal concerto in the final measures, but the flute and oboe solos were rich and supple. The brass, especially the trombone section, made stentorian sounds.

Anyone expecting traditionally ripe, round sound in the Brahms symphony might have been infuriated. But there is something to be said for applying a different approach to familiar notes to see what comes out. It started with the very first note, which Temirkanov conducted to let hang in the air an extra beat, like an opera singer milking a favorite pitch. Normally, as a pickup note on the fourth beat, it gets its true value and no more, leading as it does to the downbeat. That little fillip signaled that this was going to be a very individual approach. Throughout, Temirkanov manipulated tempos, applied unexpected rubatos and accented different notes than one is accustomed to hearing in Brahms.

The growling sound coming from the brass, the edgy intonation from the woodwinds and the sharply delineated bowing from the strings lent an entirely Russian cast to the music. At times the opening movement sounded like a young Shostakovich might have gotten his hands on it. The horn soloist in the second movement played the mellow melody as if it were a hunting fanfare, which made the nostalgic sadness inherent in the music come off as sheer grumpiness. The finale could have been some blend of the complexity in Tchaikovsky and the gruff power of Mussorgsky. Was it Brahms? Well, the notes were. Was it exciting? It kept my attention, although I doubt if I would want to make this rendition my Platonic ideal.

An encore, a gorgeous if somewhat speedy performance of the "Nimrod" movement from Elgar's Enigma Variations, poured balm over the proceedings.

Harvey Steiman

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