United Kingdom Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Dmitri Alexeev (piano), St. Petersburg Philharmonic,Yuri Temirkanov (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 1.4.2012 (MC)
Prokofiev: Symphony No.1 in D major ‘Classical’ (1917)
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor (1875 rev. 1888)
Shostakovich: Symphony No.5 in D minor (1937)
There is absolutely no reason why a top Russian orchestra cannot provide great performances of say Elgar, Debussy or Copland. But there is something undoubtedly special about a Russian orchestra playing Russian music. Here in Manchester we had the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov playing a popular all-Russian programme of Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. As Russia’s oldest symphonic ensemble this music is at the core of the orchestra’s sound and style of performance flowing through their veins like lifeblood.
Prokofiev had only graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory some three years before finishing his ‘Classical’ Symphony a work he finally completed after the February Revolution of 1917. Rather than use a more compact classical size orchestra for the ‘Classical’ Symphony Temirkanov conducted big-band Prokofiev that provided impressive orchestral colouring. Apart from a rather leaden opening movement the playing was sharp and incisive full of wittiness and style. So silvery smooth the entry of the high strings in the Larghetto was absolutely majestic. I loved the spikily playful Finale with Temirkanov achieving a union of spirit and affection.
Dmitri Alexeev’s playing of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was a revelation. This warhorse of the repertoire is as crowd pleasing today as it has been since Hans von Bülow successfully introduced the score in 1875 in Boston, USA. Conveying complete assurance from the opening bars Alexeev made the score sound freshly minted, radiant and emotionally affecting. Although not the most stylish of pianists around, Alexeev with technical brilliance provided a mesmerising display of precision and power with eruptions of ultra romantic storm. After the first piano solo the entry of the massed strings provide a glowing sound so hauntingly tender. The amount of aching passion that Alexeev and Temirkanov generated in the final movement was near heart stopping.
After being denounced by the Soviet state as an enemy of the people for writing degenerate music in particular his opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk Shostakovich described his Fifth Symphony as “An artist’s creative response to just criticism.”
A work shrouded in political intrigue Shostakovich wrote the score at a time for him of extreme personal fear and torment. This starkly enigmatic score proclaims a sardonic triumphalism and patriotism with unsettling, menacing undercurrents. It was actually the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, then known as the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, that premièred the Fifth Symphony in 1937. Temirkanov the orchestra’s artistic director and chief conductor knows this score inside out and produced a splendidly paced reading of piercing clarity. This was the first time that I had experienced a conductor that could develop such an elevated degree of unimaginable tension and hold it so firmly in his grasp. In the opening Moderato one could almost imagine the scene of a bleak and hostile landscape laid to waste. With the mighty rasping brass adding to the angst the movement ended on a cliff-hanging note. I was struck by the cellos and basses in the Allegretto a demonic waltz that sounded like a thousand strong marching army. Affecting and sinister Temirkanov built the tension in the Largo to a sense of ineffable anguish that felt like the potent energy of a volcano about to explode. Led by the brass and percussion the shattering opening of the finale evoked a mass breakout of the cultural and politically imprisoned Soviet people. With a savagely raw edge to their playing Temirkanov created a chilling climax and how the audience cheered this stunning Russian orchestra.