St Petersburg Philharmonic Returns to its Former Greatness
BBC Prom 70 – Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov: Nikolai Lugansky (piano), St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 7.9.15 (AS)
Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op. 35
There could hardly be a more ‘popular’ programme than this: in content it rather resembled the nature of the Albert Hall’s regular Sunday night concerts of some time ago. But here we had the St Petersburg Philharmonic rather than a London orchestra playing routinely after a single three-hour rehearsal.
What was at once clear was the quality of this ensemble. It had been through difficult times for some while following the death of its long-term director Yevgeny Mravinsky in 1988, and also during the upheavals in Russian society that occurred very soon afterwards (it also underwent a change of title from Leningrad Philharmonic to St Petersburg Philharmonic), but now it is undoubtedly a great orchestra again. Some of the traditional Russian characteristics have gone: the horns have shed their vibrato, the brass in general have a mellower, less abrasive sound than before, and the woodwind have brighter tonal qualities that are now more like their western European counterparts.
It was in fact the orchestral sound and immaculate playing that drew attention to itself in the opening Tchaikovsky work, for the performance itself was slightly muted. Temirkanov, who has been Musical Director of the orchestra for 27 years, made his solo clarinet phrase in a rather affected manner during his important solo, and he inserted rather curious commas at inapt points in the melodic line. There was a slightly ponderous, controlled quality in his conducting: the music was never quite allowed to become deeply expressive or exciting in the climaxes.
Matters completely changed in the Rachmaninov concerto. Nikolai Lugansky has a big technique and makes a beautiful sound. These assets he put to the service of a performance that was very romantic, highly expressive and seemingly improvisatory in nature. In the faster sections of the first movement Lugansky was sometimes excitingly impetuous, and the poetry of his phrasing elsewhere was a delight. Sometimes, however, the fine orchestral support overdid itself and covered the solo part. The slow movement was certainly slow but finely poised: there was no hint of vulgarity or sentimentality. Tempi in the finale varied greatly: the faster sections were exhilaratingly played, the slower passages once more phrased with distinction. Sometimes the orchestra was momentarily out of touch with the soloist, but this was understandable, given Lugansky’s free approach to the music. But the performance never seemed wayward or exaggerated.
If Temirkanov had perhaps sought to provide new aspects to the Tchaikovsky work in his performance, his conducting of Scheherazade was perfectly orthodox. If that suggests something boring or routine this was not so. Once again the sheer beauty and virtuosity of the playing was striking. Though the conductor was fully in control he sometimes seemed to hold back and simply allow his superb instrumentalists their heads, though he did mould the love music of the third “Young Prince and the Young Princess” movement precisely and affectingly. The finale was taken at a breathtaking tempo, creating a virtuoso display of a very exalted order, so much so that it seemed almost a pity when the quiet conclusion of the work was reached. In this section, as throughout the work, the concertmaster of the orchestra, Lev Klychkov, played his solo violin part with skill and eloquence.