From Russia With Love – Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Phil in a Night of Refined Playing

23/01/2017

Khachaturian, Prokofiev, Shostakovich: John Lill (piano), St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra / Yuri Temirkanov (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.1.2017. (SRT)

Khachaturian – Excerpts from Spartacus

Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.3

Shostakovich – Symphony No.5

Presidents come and go, empires rise and fall, but still the Russians remain the best at playing Shostakovich. Edinburgh has been lucky to have had several visits from the St Petersburg Philharmonic during my time in the city, and this year they’re embarking on an international tour to “celebrate” the centenary of the Russian Revolution (though the orchestra had, at times, few reasons to be thankful for their Soviet overlords). In that context, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is a shrewd repertoire choice because, more than any other work of his, it encapsulates the composer’s troubled relationship with the Soviet government. This orchestra has a plausible claim to be the one most closely associated with him, and their decades of playing his music has predictable consequences for the quality of their performance.  The violins’ first theme wandered blankly, emotionlessly over a bleak landscape, saving all of their passion for the elegy of the third movement, which was redolent with grief and unfulfillable yearning. The brass had a touch of the military band to them, and I liked the way they embraced the vulgarity of the finale’s opening, while the winds either sang beautifully or skirled chillingly above the rest of the soundscape.

Most telling was the opulence of the string sound; something that they made the most of during the (slightly truncated) Adagio from Spartacus, milked for every ounce of Hollywood schmaltz, but sounding wonderful for it. What impressed me most, however, was how disciplined the sound was, both here and in the subsequent ‘Dance of the Gaditanae’. An orchestra of nearly one hundred players was giving it their all, but the sound never spilt over into gaudiness: instead it remained refined, polished and very, very classy.

That also proved something of a revelation for Prokofiev’s third piano concerto, for which they were joined by the ever-young John Lill, as dazzling in the quicksilver of the opening as he was in the perpetuum mobile that ended both the first and third movements. I loved his quiet energy, but also the dreaminess with which he invested the fourth variation of the slow movement, which he knew better than to take too seriously. Again, however, it was the gloss of the orchestral sound that really stuck with me, giving the luxury treatment to a work that, written by a show-off for a show-off, can sound crass. They played it as though it were a masterpiece which, for perhaps the first time, left me wondering whether, in fact, it actually was.

Simon Thompson

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