Russian Music-Making Writ Large from Dmitriev and the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra

18/10/2017

Tchaikovsky & Rachmaninov: Peter Donohoe (piano); St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Dmitriev. Cadogan Hall, London, 16.10.2017. (Y-JH)

TchaikovskyRomeo & Juliet Overture; Symphony No.6 (Pathétique)

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.4

In a world where the term maestro is fast becoming a formulaic mannerism as conductors prefer short-termed long-distance relationships with orchestras, it is a major event to witness an experienced conductor who has collaborated with an orchestra for more than 40 years – as Alexander Dmitriev has done with the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra. The evening’s performance was no music-making coming from one afternoon’s rehearsal.

If there is such thing as a ‘Russian’ sound, there was no question that this was what Dmitriev cultivated in his band. The strings, in their unadorned and sharp-edged zing, played in awe-inspiring discipline. The regimented cellos and double basses, always gritty yet never losing clarity for each note, were particularly gripping. The brass blared with an exotic flair of confidence, while the protruding woodwinds were unbuttoned and determined. The personality of the orchestral contour alone left an indelible impression.

Serendipitously, the blazing and unsubtle acoustics of Cadogan Hall befitted the un-blunted orchestral attacks of Tchaikovsky’s Overture-fantasy Romeo and Juliet. The ‘love’ theme, too, blossomed sumptuously under Dmitriev’s baton, yet any notion of sentimentality was controlled by the sheer discipline and sharpness of playing. The timpani-driven final ‘death scene’ – before the return of the chorale-like introductory theme – had a gutsy quality to it, and was more fateful than shocking.

If Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.4 may not be the most popular work in the repertoire, with the composer himself having shown much doubt about it, there was little doubt of the quality of the performance. The poignantly repetitive Largo was played with much warmth from the experienced Peter Donohoe, but the highlight was in the Allegro vivace, which started abruptly with minimum break. The virtuosity of the pianist matched the scintillation of the orchestra; the impeccable chemistry was uplifting, as it knitted the various fragmentary episodes of the work together.

These impressive performances set the tone for Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony. If the beginning of the symphony was hopelessly shaky as the violas continued their search for unity and tone facing this soul-searching masterpiece, Dmitriev’s engine was back in full power by the introduction of the lyrical second theme. Even in the most lyrical of melodies, Dmitriev did not aim for the secularity of immediate warmth and pleasure – always reigning was a cold stark beauty, and even the small number of brass blunders felt part of the broken landscape the composer must have meandered in the time of this troubled composition. If the Allegro molto vivace usually invites applause, the concluding moments of the movement tonight had an element of fright more than excitement, driven by the vehement troop of percussion and bass. All this was achieved with a small raise of the arm by the conductor. Yet clapping was not easy, either, after the Adagio lamentoso. Deep under the abyss of Tchaikovsky’s world, the claps were never conjoined with a sense of delight or relief even. Recording and live performances put together, this was as intense a performance the symphony could get.

After the initial applause, Dmitriev’s choice to follow up the symphony with the second movement of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.3 in D major as an encore demonstrated Tchaikovsky was not the only Russian in the hall with a feel for genuine musical storytelling. The strings played with a newfound vibrato and tenderness (in my notes, I wrote: “Can they also play beautifully? YES! Emphatically, YES!”), and the audiences could for the first time in tonight’s concert have a sense of inundated consolation. The Hungarian Dance No.1 by Brahms that followed could have been left out, yet the inclusion did in no way diminish the smiles that had already swept across the hall.

Throughout the performances this evening, rubatos were kept to a minimum, and there were no eccentricities in tempo choice. Dmitriev demonstrated that discipline and intensity of playing alone, without attempts for interpretation, was sufficient to generate a great performance. And if the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra may only be the third largest orchestra by reputation in that city, the audiences experienced what a maestro can do – and is.

Young-Jin Hur

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