Vengerov, Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic Excel in Russian Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Shostakovich:  Maxim Vengerov (violin), St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 24.3.2012 (CC)

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 19
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 60, “Leningrad”

This concert was originally due to feature Martha Argerich, but after she pulled out it fell to Maxim Vengerov to do the honours with Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto. One can only speculate what fireworks might have resulted from an Argerich/Temirkanov pairing live, and it was difficult not to regret her absence, but still one had to admire Vengerov’s deeply considered reading of Prokofiev’s concerto. If not quite in the same region of the musical stratosphere as Argerich, Vengerov nevertheless is a master of his instrument at the height of his powers, as his playing here demonstrated.

The First Concerto was written in 1916/17 and was eloquently championed by David Oistrakh, who won the work many friends. The shape is that of a first movement, Andantino/Andante assai and a Moderato/Allegro moderato finale surrounding a quicksilver central Scherzo. Once one had got over Vengerov’s gorgeous, silky tone and redirected one’s attention back to the music, it became evident that this was to be a reading of some stature. Temirkanov was the perfect accompanist, his minimalist gestures used to maximum effect. The orchestra, too, excelled, not only in the superb first movement flute solo but in the multiplicity of ravishing textures the players produced. Virtuosity was the keyword of the central Scherzo (great tuba playing, too), while bags of character was unleashed in the finale, with its clockwork opening, so characteristic of Prokofiev. Lyricism was the key here, with themes soaring from soloist and orchestra alike. This was a real collaboration between soloist and orchestra. Unsurprisingly there was an encore from Vengerov (a solo Bach Sarabande). But it was the way in which both soloist and conductor had the measure of the concerto that impressed.

Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is an almighty behemoth of a piece. Temirkanov treated it as one of Shostakovich’s finest creations. The opening statement was huge, heavy and full of menace, punctuated by imposing brass. If the Andante assai was closer to allegro, it seemed just right in context. While the ear was constantly enchanted and amazed by technical feats and sonorous moments (gorgeous strings, over which a flute piped magnificently, for example), it became evident that Temirkanov’s reading was based on huge paragraphs, on the ability to hear over large expanses of time.

The famous crescendo was magnificently judged by the conductor. It is a shame the side-drum player was hardly rock solid in rhythm, but in retrospect it seems a small quibble. Much better to dwell on the fact that even at the highest dynamic peaks, one could still hear the various strands going on even at ear-shattering levels, a sort of heavenly cacophony before the music seemed to collapse into pools of consonance.

The very Russian, nasal oboe sound seemed perfect in the second movement (Moderato, poco allegretto); string pizzicati that were preternaturally together added to the sense that something special was happening before our eyes and ears. The emotional heart, the Adagio, was warmly rendered (the spread string chords seeming, bizarrely, to reference Vengerov’s encore!). Perhaps the most striking feature was the way that the most threadbare textures were maintained at the highest levels of concentration.

Again, while one reveled in the heft of the brass of the finale, it was Temirkanov’s interpretative stance that impressed, underlining the obsessive nature of the score until the music seemed to exhaust itself. The great grating trumpet perorations succeeded all the more because of the careful preparation. Superb!

The encore was a lovely gesture – Elgar’s “Nimrod” in a flowing, yet affectionate, reading.

Colin Clarke