Sinaisky and St Petersburg Philharmonic Play a Memorable Mahler Fourth in Edinburgh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov, Mahler: Freddy Kempf (piano), Ann Devin (soprano), St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vasily Sinaisky (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 27.1.2019. (GT)

Vasily Sinaisky

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2

Mahler – Symphony No.4 in G minor

On a bitterly cold winter’s day in Edinburgh, it was wholly appropriate that the capital city welcomed Russia’s oldest and most venerated orchestra on the same day as World Holocaust Memorial Day that coincided with the 75th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad. The orchestra is special for their relationship with Russia’s greatest composers, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. It was Mravinsky who premiered five of the latter’s symphonies and was the pre-eminent interpreter of Tchaikovsky’s music. He brought this orchestra here in 1960 and opened up their magnificent virtuosity to audiences at the Edinburgh International Festival establishing the Leningrad Philharmonic as one of the world’s great orchestras. Regardless of what has happened in the last thirty years in Russia this ensemble remains at the top rank of performing orchestras. Not only were the great Russian composers linked with the Philharmonic, Gustav Mahler conducted his own music with the orchestra (then the Court Orchestra) over a hundred years ago, and the orchestra continued to play his symphonies in major Mahler Festivals in the 1930s inviting Bruno Walter and other leading conductors to conduct his music. The tradition has continued for they have regularly performed Mahler symphonies on their touring schedules worldwide.

It was of course with this orchestra that Glazunov conducted the First Symphony by Rachmaninov so poorly that it led to the composer’s great depression and ultimately to seeking help from Dr Dahl in Dresden who assisted in Rachmaninov’s recovery and his writing what has become the most beloved Piano Concerto of the last hundred years. The colours and romanticism have a way of almost hypnotising its listeners. The still youthful looking Freddy Kempf has mesmerised them also for a long time by his magical playing, brilliant technique and musicality. It was intriguing to listen to him playing with this great Russian orchestra.

The opening bars on the piano followed by the deep Slavic throbbing from the mass strings always seem to produce a distinct mood of foreboding, as if a great tragic event is about to happen. The way in which this orchestra sway in the rhythmic undulated romanticism, ever so gently, is breath-taking at times. The sight of a great Russian orchestra playing this music so fantastically as one in total belief – despite probably playing this hundreds of times – was a highlight of this performance. Regrettably, it seemed as if the conductor and the soloist didn’t see eye to eye as there was some lack of cohesion in the large opening movement. Yet they appeared to come together in the slow movement for we heard a marvellous duet between the soloist and the flute of Olga Bystrova. It was so fascinating to hear the almost clinical pearly-toned keyboard playing by Kempf against the rapturous beauty of the strings. The harmonic colour showed  how the difference between world-class and international class orchestra is surely determined by grand tradition. The musicians of this orchestra were all taught by professors who were members of Mravinsky’s orchestra in past decades and so they create a unique sound. In the finale elaborate playing from Kempf began rising in emotive intensity and at one with the orchestra. As an encore Kempf gave us the Nikolai Kapustin’s Intermezzo, a beautifully jazz inflected piece which brought a burst of applause from the capacity audience.

It was just a few weeks ago that Yuri Temirkanov took ill and cancelled his concerts allowing the experienced Vasily Sinaisky to take over. He is not among the fashionable globetrotters in the world of music but has trod a steady path with many orchestras and provides reliable hands at the podium. He is another in the growing band of conductors who have been hired and fired by the Bolshoi Theatre, and this reflects more on that company than his competence. Sinaisky is from the Leningrad school of Ilya Musin which has given us Temirkanov, Gergiev and Currentzis. If the latter’s style is flamboyant and controversial, Sinaisky is more conventional. Without the use of a baton, he nonchalantly gives his control through steady and decisive gestures from his hands sometimes with a quick twist of his wrist and eschews histrionic dramatics. In Mahler’s Fourth, the Russian conductor proved a magnificent interpreter of the Austro-German repertoire. It was thrilling to hear the huge string sections playing in total unison at a slightly quick tempo but allowing ideas to settle; there was great beauty in the playing of the woodwind – and especially the flute (now Dmitry Terentyev) – and a terrific trumpet in Bogdan Dekhtiaruk! There was too the scintillating violin solo from Lev Klychkov. In the second movement, there were more robustly emotive harmonies amidst delightfully virtuosic playing; all very musical and a more suitable tempo here. In the third movement, there was a sensitive, graceful idiom and Sinaisky’s second violins were especially majestic and there was beautiful oboe playing from Artem Isaev! This was sublime playing and a performance of the highest class; magical strings with cool and confident direction by the conductor. Into the finale, and like a ray of sunshine bursting upon us – as if taking us into a different harmonious world – we heard equally radiant singing from Irish soprano Anna Devin, a bit more strident than luminous as is usually required, nevertheless with Sinaisky’s sensitive accompaniment, her singing was captivating. There was wonderfully idiomatic playing from each department of the orchestra, with striking contributions from the woodwind and brass, and gently, ever so gently, it was all brought to a magical close on the two harps. The encore saw the return of the tuba player Dmitri Karakhtanov, and entry of the celeste player Maxim Pankov (his sole contribution!) for the ‘Amoroso’ from Prokofiev’s Cinderella. The second half of this concert was the best heard here for some years.

Gregor Tassie

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