Russian Musicians Mark 70th Anniversary of Leningrad Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov, Shostakovich: Freddy Kempf (Piano), St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Dmitriev (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 7.10.2012 (SRT)

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7  “Leningrad”

Two Shostakovich symphonies in the space of one weekend may seem excessive, even if the quality of what was on offer from Peter Oundjian and the RSNO was so high, but when the symphony on offer is the Leningrad, and it is played by the orchestra which is effectively the one for which the work was written, it’s worth the trip. In its original incarnation as the orchestra of Leningrad Radio, the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra was the band that gave the Seventh Symphony its first performance in the besieged city, the very performance that was blasted at the German army through loudspeakers as the ultimate piece of morale-boosting propaganda. They are undertaking a UK tour to coincide with the 70th anniversary of that performance and tonight saw them arrive in Edinburgh, trailing star pianist Freddy Kempf with them. Kempf was never going to be a mere add-on, though. The technique he demonstrated in Rachmaninov’s third concerto was spectacular (it has to be for a work like this!), but the most impressive thing was the way he infused it with almost constant beauty of tone. Even the cadenzas had a singing quality to them, and he also showed a deft comic touch in the fast waltz of the second movement. He topped it off with a heady – and headlong – rendition of Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod.

The interesting thing about the sound of the orchestra, though, is their remarkable attention to detail, such as the agitated violin and viola figures that accompany the start of the concerto, which I’ve never heard as clearly delineated. They don’t have the raw, sometimes abrasive touch of their fellow countrymen of the Moscow Philharmonic, however; instead they play with more polish and refinement, a Russian sound that looks westwards towards Central Europe. The greatest element of this was the richness of their string tone, which can knock your socks off, most notably at the opening of Rachmaninov’s slow movement, lush and warm, but still with a tart element that gives it its peculiar character. It worked especially well in the Adagio of the symphony, an evocation of their home town at twilight which surged with feeling and expressiveness.

A little bit more rawness might not have gone amiss elsewhere in the symphony, however. Alexander Dmitriev’s conducting was secure and tight, but often rather workman-like, and in the outer movements it seemed as though he was moving things along rather than building towards a goal. The tempest of sound I was expecting at the climax of the first movement didn’t quite materialise, and the wind-down as the strings re-started the first theme didn’t strike me as a fitting continuation. Likewise, the build-up to the final peroration was a little mechanical, lacking the sense of exploration and the thrill of excitement that this symphony should always produce. Aside from the wonderful slow movement it was, perhaps surprisingly, the cheeky central section of the Moderato second movement that felt most characterful and individualistic. Perhaps they have played the symphony too often in its anniversary year and some of the freshness has come off their reading. Still, it says something about a performance of the Leningrad Symphony when the most memorable moments come in the central movements rather than in the grandeur of its final pages.

Simon Thompson