St Petersburg Symphony Serve Up Unfamiliar Rimsky-Korsakov and Elgar in Second Prom Appearance
BBC Prom 71 – Rimsky-Korsakov, Elgar & Tchaikovsky: Julia Fischer (violin), St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra / Yuri Temirkanov (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 08.09.2015 (CS)
Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh – Symphonic Pictures (arr. Maximilian Steinberg)
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Elgar: Variations on an original theme (‘Enigma’)
On Monday evening, conductor Yuri Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic served up a feast of familiar Russian fare – Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with fellow countryman Nikolai Lugansky as soloist, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – and did so with characteristic charisma and colour. But, for their second Prom, the orchestra dipped a toe into less frequently performed repertoire from their homeland, and ventured into English ‘national waters’.
The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1903-5) was Rimsky-Korsakov’s fourteenth and penultimate opera. The libretto inter-mingles two Russian legends – the legend of the City of Kitezh, in which the city is protected from invaders by virtue of its invisibility, is combined with the myth of St Theuronia, which tells of a honey-gatherer’s daughter who possesses magical healing powers.
But, this performance of three of the four ‘symphonic pictures’ which were adapted by the composer’s pupil and son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg into an orchestral suite was not one characterised by sweeping fervour and passions dark and deep – qualities which, were we to accept the stereotypes, we might consider typically ‘Russian’. The ‘Wedding Procession – the Invasion of the Tartars’, ‘The Battle of Kerzhenets’, and ‘Prelude: In Praise of the Wilderness’ were instead marked by finely judged gradations and distinctions. Temirkanov was keen to finely etch every detail of Rimsky-Korsakov’s kaleidoscopic orchestral canvas, and his soloists – particularly the woodwind, whose beguilingly melodies carried clearly despite the placement of the front row on the floor alongside the horns who were seated to their left – responded with some beautifully expressive playing.
Temirkanov controlled the score’s dramatic structure well too, creating a bustle of hushed but excited anticipation at the start (strong pizzicatos and rustling woodwind) and skilfully managing the accumulation of tension and pace. We were offered variegated shades and moods: exotic strangeness, persuasive national fervour, warm joy and folksiness, portentous shadows. This was discerning and keenly nuanced story-telling, further enhanced by the naturalness and ease with which Temirkanov shaped the ebbs and flows of tempo and pulse.
The orchestra were joined by German violinist Julia Fischer for a dazzling performance of Tchaikovsky’s romantic warhorse. Fischer’s violin sang with many voices, by turns sweet melody-maker and then virtuosic showman. The pyrotechnics of the first movement and Allegro vivace finale were stunningly assured – the double-stopping of the cadenza show-cased Fischer’s rock-solid intonation coupled with the vivid fullness of her tone; but the technical brilliance was never inexpressive, and in the central Canzonetta Fischer’s warm lyricism created an unending melodic arc and persuasive forward flow, the spacious, strong sound conveying her own deeply felt, maturely conceived, personal response: not a drop of schmaltzy syrup was present, but there was not a bar which was not sincere and heartfelt.
From the first, Fischer’s command was impressive: the soloist’s rapturous entry calmed the nascent energy of the orchestra’s opening Allegro moderato and with the commencement of the Moderato assai theme a calm focus was established, enriched by Fischer’s expressive rubatos. But the orchestra not entirely quelled: cellos and basses provided well-directed foundations and the orchestra tuttis were forceful and declamatory, the strength and character of the timpani’s interjections adding an element of surprising assertion. Moreover, Fischer later released her own infectious spirit in the dancing Finale in which both soloist and orchestra sparkled: the tutti opening was a flash of light after the serenity of the Canzonetta, while Fischer’s pizzicatos and trills were astonishing vibrant.
Temirkanov was a supportive partner throughout, directing fluidly but surely, keeping the orchestral textures airy and transparent yet tautly rhythmic and well-judged in terms of dynamics. The inter-play between woodwind and soloist in the central section of the Canzonetta captivatingly foregrounded the movement of the inner voices, and huge excitement was generated in the last movement, with the dynamics changing rapidly as the music swept vivaciously through varied, fluctuating moods.
A Paganini encore – Caprice No.17 in Eb from the Op.1 set – which Fischer delivered with perfectly tuned octaves, deliciously slithering chromatic runs and a secure rhythmic framework – was the icing on the cake: jaw-dropping and mesmerising.
Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ can – especially when the movement is heard amid its wistful and sentimental Last-Night brethren – seem laden with more nostalgia than any one piece can bear. But, Temirkanov’s Enigma Variations spurned mawkishness and declined to indulge in Romantic intemperance. Perhaps there were places were the conductor pushed the tempo along a little too brusquely: the largamente theme of variation five (‘R.P.A.’) would have benefited from more time to ‘breathe’, as would the ‘Romanza’ (variation thirteen). But, there was breadth allied with propulsion through the syncopated rises and falls of the first variation (‘C.A.E.’), and the staccatos in the subsequent movement (‘H.D.S.-P.’), which passed drily between the violins and transferred to the woodwind above a firm, focused cello theme, generated a scurrying energy which eventually found outlet in the more heroic and forthright pronouncements of the fourth variation (‘W.M.B’). And, the tense ostinato of variant seven (‘Troyte’), together with the surges of the melody, presented the somewhat limited but enthusiastic piano-playing of Elgar’s close friend, Arthur Troyte Griffith, with broad irony. The string tone alone conveyed the transfiguration at the essence of ‘Nimrod’, without need for over-emphatic expressive gestures. The cello solo of variation twelve (‘E.G.N.’) was beautifully projected through the dark string sound; and the brass in the final movement had a ‘roundness’ which was extremely satisfying.
The St Petersburg Philharmonic obviously enjoyed their appearances at the Royal Albert Hall and the Prommers similarly delighted in offering warm salutations and enthusiastic appreciation to the Russian visitors. Yuri Temirkanov playfully invited all of his section leaders to accept the audience applause, and his own gratitude, in somewhat ostentatious fashion – much fun was clearly been had during the extensive bows and acknowledgements. And, the programme was itself extended by two encores, though I’m not sure that they added much; certainly any trace of pensiveness was banished by the gentility of Elgar’s salon morceau ‘Salon d’amour’, and – after much foot-stamping from the Arena – a dash of neoclassical wit in the form of a short movement from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. But, punters and players went home happy.