Concert Confirms Greatness of Martha Argerich, Yuri Temirkanov and St Petersburg Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Khachaturian, Prokofiev & Shostkovich: Martha Argerich (piano), St Petersburg Philharmonic / Yuri Temirkanov (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 29.1.2017. (GD)

Khachaturian, ‘Adagio of Spartacus’ and ‘Phrygia from Spartacus’, Suite No.2; ‘Dance of the Gaditanian Maidens’ and ‘Victory of Spartacus’ from Spartacus, Suite No.1.

Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No.3 Op.26

Shostakovich, Symphony No.5 in D minor.

Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto has been a kind of calling-card piece throughout Argerich’s career Here it proved to be a blessing, largely because of the total empathy offered by both pianist and conductor. But it was not just a case of empathy; this was one of those rare occasions where there was a total accord (dialogue) between soloist, conductor and orchestra and Martha Argerich’s miraculous playing was another rare event, in being able to fully merge in with the orchestral part (the dialogue between soloist and conductor) but also demonstrating an incredible range of virtuosity.

After a brief introductory Andante the first movement’s Allegro, with the ‘grotesque’ flavour of the oboe, accentuated by pianissimo castanets, initiating myriad off-centre A minor themes and a brief, but terse set of 4 crescendo bars. Argerich’s first entry sounded so in tune (as it were) with all the tonal ambiguities and harmonic sideslips of this miraculous music. Later on in the movement, this ‘first theme’, after negotiating crucial tonal shifts from C minor to A minor, recurs twice at much greater length and transferred to the soloist. Argerich’s scurrying semiquavers here and in the development section -also her imitation of a ritornello articulated on the C pedal in the quasi recapitulation -had to be heard to be believed!

The second movement Tema con variazone was a model of thematic and tonal contrast. The five variations were played as both a whole sequence of interrelated themes, and as a series of musical opposites. The rapport between pianist and conductor was particularly apparent in the conversational sequences (as in variation 4) with fantastical sounding muted strings. The last variation which marches noisily along with constant piano accompaniment, denoted a certain ‘burlesque’, or ‘carnivalesque’ mood compellingly realised by both pianist and conductor. In the finale all the high spirits and ‘luxuriant warmth’, of the middle section, were fully realised, with both soloist and conductor finding a note of brittle irony in the ostensibly ‘bright’ flourishes of the C major coda.

Throughout the superb St Petersburg Orchestra responded to every one of Prokofiev’s, the conductor’s and soloist’s demands, the woodwinds and horns sounding particularly resplendent. As an encore Argerich played a beautiful rendition of Liszt’s’ arrangement of Schumann’s lied ‘Widmung’, playing down Liszt’s tendency to flashy virtuosity, quite alien to Schumann.

Temirkanov’s rendition of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony was every bit as compelling and urgent as many other recent live and recorded renditions have made it. The term ‘live’ performance seems almost redundant today with many performances sounding like well-rehearsed CDs, as increasingly ‘live’ performances become as standardised as CD (or download) fare: but here I had the feeling of the drama of the symphony unfolding there and then; as though Temirkanov had exceeded the rehearsed template in the very ‘live’ event witnessed here. From the bass recitatives which open the symphony through to the resounding Ds of the triumphant coda, Temirkanov moulded an intense musical line, a kind of great arc of symphonic drama which also projected the difference, diversity of each movement. He kept the long, brooding introduction moving, realising the ‘moderato’ marking, never sounding ‘Adagio’ as it does with many famed conductors. The note on A which initiates the march sequence in the first movement had nothing of the ceremonial pomp one often hears. Temirkanov took it quite swiftly but with incisively inflected rhythmic control he made it sound more menacing than usual. Here I didn’t hear anything of Stalin! The musical drama in itself deflected from extra-musical/political fantasy. The rhetoric about Shostakovich writing a kind encrypted musical critique of the Stalinist regime was initiated by Solomon Volkov, in his ‘Testament’, reaching the West in 1979. Although many of his contentions have been largely discarded as spurious, to say the least, the ideas in the book are still adhered to, especially by CD note writers (also with this concerts programme notes) as a kind of holy writ. Another cliché that ‘critics’ also cling to is that the second movement Allegretto is really a kind of ‘gawky’ Scherzo inspired by Mahler. It is possible to hear Mahler here but having said that, it is probably possible to ‘hear’ Mahler from a whole range of composers. Tonight, with Temirkanov’s particularly pointed accents/rhythms accentuating the ‘carnival’ irony of the music, I was happy to forget Mahler completely and focus on Shostakovich.

It was in the Largo that Temirkanov found an almost unbearable dramatic/brooding quality. I have seldom heard the development of unbroken cadences, after the first impassioned D minor climax, mutating into regions of ill-defined tonality captured with such conviction, almost with the dark conviction of the great Mravinsky, in his various ‘live’ performances (it is worth mentioning that Temirkanov was the great man’s assistant in St Petersburg, and like Mravinsky, who gave the world premiere with the then Leningrad Philharmonic in 1937) he managed to combine intense drama with a beautiful classical line). In the ‘festive’ finale we heard a more dark/manic quality, especially in the repeated C major fanfare motifs in the second subject. At the beginning of the coda I have seldom heard so much care taken to rhythmically/dynamically pre-figure the succession of harmonic units which develop into the concluding climactic D major coda proper. In other words, Temirkanov demonstrated that this, far from being some kind of anti-Stalinist political agitprop emphasising the ‘banality’ of power, is in fact a most carefully and economically structured symphonic coda, in the best sense of the term ‘symphonic’. Throughout the St Petersburg orchestra played this music like no other orchestra. I had the sense of every section (every player) listening to each other producing a wonderful sense of orchestral integration. It is a pity that the Festival Hall’s limited acoustic could not accommodate their magnificent and powerful dynamic range producing a strained distortion of the real thing!

The concert opened with glowing extracts from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus. With the ‘Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia’ from the Second Suites epic grand melody, we heard the full tutti range particularly of the St Petersburg Orchestra’s resplendent string tone, sadly compromised, again by the above mentioned limitations of the Festival hall’s acoustic. The ‘Dance of the Gaditanian Maidens’ and final victory of Spartacus, from the First Suite, were given virtuoso performances with precise rhythms, brilliant brass and percussion, and plenty of contrast between drama and melody in the best Russian tradition. I, for one, had forgotten what a brilliant orchestrator Khachaturian was.

Throughout the concert Temirkanov (without baton) was the model of conductorial economy, every gesture for the music. As described in the programme notes, he is the ‘last of a generation of Russian master conductors’, following on from the great Mravinsky and having the same intense rapport with the same orchestra.

As an encore Temirkanov gave us a brief extract from Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella foregrounding the sensuous finesse of the orchestras strings. All over a superb concert, again confirming Argerich’s status as one of the greatest pianist of our time, and also the status of the St Petersburg orchestra under Temirkanov as one of a handful of top world orchestras.

Geoff Diggines

2 thoughts on “Concert Confirms Greatness of Martha Argerich, Yuri Temirkanov and St Petersburg Philharmonic”

  1. I agree totally. As a concert-goer with over 45 years under my belt, I found this one of my greatest experiences in the concert hall. The great Martha Argerich – incandescent in the concerto – alone made it a memorable experience. Then, to end with such a magnificent performance of the Shostakovitch symphony – the intensity of the Largo will always stay in my memory – was wonderful. All sections of this great orchestra: the powerful and lustrous strings, underpinned by those nine double basses; the characterful winds; the incisive brass (thankfully no longer with the harsh and blaring vibrato of years ago) were stunning. Interesting that Temirkanov places the orchestra on the level – it integrates the brass into the string sound in a wonderfully homogenous way.
    I heard them at the Colston Hall, Bristol, earlier in the week – the strings sounding even more magnificent in a less dry acoustic, and a sumptuous and dazzling performance of Scheherazade crowning the concert.


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