A Very ‘Russian’ Performance of the Pathétique

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky: Natalie Clein (cello), St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Dmitriev (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 9.2.2015 (AS)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21
Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique


The St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, as it is now called, has been through various changes of name since its foundation in the early 1930s as a radio ensemble. But throughout its history it has effectively been the second orchestra of Leningrad or St Petersburg, overshadowed by the more prestigious Leningrad (now St Petersburg) Philharmonic. One of its main claims to fame is that it was the only orchestra to remain in Leningrad during the Second World War siege, where it gave the first performance of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in 1942.

Since 1977 its artistic director has been Alexander Dmitriev, now in his eightieth year. Though he was conductor of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra between 1990 and 1998 Dmitriev has never really achieved the international reputation of some other contemporary Russian conductors. It is probably fruitless to speculate on the reasons why this may be.

Having undertaken a major tour of the USA in January, the orchestra is now performing at various UK venues this month. It must be difficult for players and conductors to maintain energy levels under touring conditions, but in its Cadogan Hall appearance there was no sign of tiredness on the part of either the orchestra or its venerable conductor.

It was to be expected that Dmitriev would conduct Beethoven’s First Symphony in a manner that reflected older performing traditions, and so it proved to be. The main Allegro con brio of the first movement was taken at a fairly moderate tempo, but it was none the worse for that, and perhaps surprisingly Dmitriev observed the exposition repeat. The playing was well articulated, nicely poised and very civilised, as it was in the second-movement Andante cantabile, which sounded elegant with even a touch of old-school sweetness. A spritely Minuet and trio preceded a finale that had an attractively graceful quality and lightness of touch.

Natalie Clein is a most accomplished cellist, with an excellent technique but not perhaps the biggest quality of tone – though the sounds she produces from her Guadagnini instrument are attractive. Saint-Saëns’s concerto doesn’t pose any great interpretative problems but there are some nice lyrical passages to which Clein responded warmly, and there are also some formidable technical challenges, which the cellist surmounted with a good deal of aplomb.

Dmitriev must have conducted Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony on countless occasions and the orchestra must have played the work as many times, and so a feeling of routine in this new performance would have been understandable. But of this there was not a trace. Dmitriev shaped the work’s quiet, mysterious opening with great care and the tension then rose as the movement began to take shape. It became a reading of great dramatic and exciting qualities, with expressive mouldings of phrase that always conformed to the music’s natural ebb and flow. Nothing was distorted for mere effect. There was certainly an element of Russian soul in Dmitriev’s wise, experienced shaping of the second movement, and he took the march in an excitingly fast, highly charged fashion. Thank goodness there was no applause after this movement, so the tension was maintained into a beautifully heartfelt, again highly expressive but balanced account of the finale.

It was altogether a very ‘Russian’ performance, even to the slightly raw-sounding brass section (though the horns had none of the old-style vibrato). As a whole the orchestra is efficient and well disciplined, but it is not the most refined of instruments, at least as heard on this occasion. Perhaps a bigger hall with a more open acoustic would have been more flattering.

Alan Sanders

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