Thursday, April 14, 2011

Russian resolution

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic in its natural habitat.
The St. Petersburg Philharmonic (above, which touched down at Symphony Hall last weekend courtesy of Celebrity Series) is the kind of orchestra that almost operates as a musical riposte to our modern standards of symphonic playing.

In fact I feel slightly embarrassed even mentioning the adjectives that came to mind as conductor Yuri Temirkanov shepherded his vast forces through the sonic landscapes of Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, and Brahms. Because those words were ones like "forcefully masculine," and "defiantly Russian," terms so sexist and nationalistic - so loadedly retro - as to be almost "inappropriate." To be blunt, classical music isn't supposed to have hair on its chest anymore, and it isn't supposed to have a national character; like the rest of our artistic "discourse," it's supposed to exist on a virtual plane, concocted in some ironic, yet sympathetic, critical cloud.

Somehow, though, Temirkanov (at right) didn't get that memo; so the St. Petersburg's signature stance proved to be almost a kind of Old World cliché: raw power wrapped in a veneer of glorious subtlety. I may have been wrong to ascribe "defiance" to the conductor, however; he didn't seem to have any particular axe to grind, although his manner glimmered here and there with an impish awareness of just how impressive his old-school orchestra really was, and how insouciantly he could command it. Often, in fact, Temirkanov would simply beckon with his fingertips, and some gigantic section of the orchestra or other would rise to its toes and balance en pointe.  Indeed, the contrast between his bemused, offhand precision, and the size of the monster ensemble at his beck and call, was part of what made Temirkanov's performance so mesmerizing.

For make no mistake - when it wanted to (or rather when Temirkanov wanted it to), the St. Petersburg seemed capable of rolling right over our own BSO.  Not with mere volume (although the orchestra got plenty loud), but with a quality that's hard to pin down with a more specific word than "size."  Yes, before you laugh - size matters in an orchestra; you can have five violins playing as loud as possible and the effect comes off as blaring; but if you have twice that many instruments playing at half that volume then the effect is one of mass and power and space, of strength rather than shrillness; and that's what the St. Petersburg's outsized ensemble had in spades.

The effect was immediately clear in the opening Russian Easter Overture of Rimsky-Korsakov, which required forces that could barely squeeze onto the Symphony Hall stage.  The piece famously encompasses the energies of the spring holiday by opening with the sombre (though joyful) chants of the Orthodox Church, which are slowly infiltrated, and then overcome, by dancing pagan spirits.  The orchestration is all color, all atmosphere, as you might expect of Rimsky-Korsakov; it even closes with a triumphal summation that recalls the clanging majesty of "The Great Gate of Kiev" from Pictures at an Exhibition. And from the opening bars it was obvious the St. Petersburg was in its element; a vast musical space was carved in Symphony Hall, within which the air itself seemed to glitter, then come alive before the joyous crashes of the closing cathedral bells; pure magic.

From there things only got more "Russian," if in a much darker key; with the help of the brilliant young cellist Alisa Weilerstein, the St. Petersburg essayed Shostakovich's landmark Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat.  This is one of the greatest, if bleakest, works of the twentieth century, and almost frightening in its evocation of a national spirit gone half-mad - it's music, as I've argued before, that's embedded in history rather than theory.  The St. Petersburg played with authoritative passion, if not quite mania - surprisingly, it was the young American who supplied the needed intensity and focus - at least at first.  Alas, she was slightly undone by the cryptic cadenza, in which you can feel Shostakovich insinuating that music itself must fall away, despairing, before some kinds of atrocities and betrayals; perhaps this is simply too much to expect a twenty-seven-year-old, however talented, to convey.

The second half of the program was given over to Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E-Minor, the single piece in which Temirkanov seemed to falter slightly in his inspiration. Things began well, with just the right kind of sigh rippling beneath the lilt of the opening theme, and the later movements felt appropriately steeped in Brahmsian oak, with expert playing from the horns and winds (as well as the consistently superb strings). But perhaps something slightly rote had begun to slip into the reading before its last climax.

Any sense of disappointment was erased, however, by the orchestra's encore, which was probably the most moving rendition of Elgar's famous "Nimrod" (from the Enigma Variations) that I've ever had the honor to hear. The opening notes seemed to flow from the strings like an invisible tide, and once again maestro Temirkanov hardly seemed to move as the orchestra heaved about him like some deep, mysterious ocean. Benediction, apotheosis, and penance - "Nimrod" seems in its few minutes to encompass all this and more (and it's worth noting that it, too, has become embedded in history - it's all but Britain's official ode of mourning for the dead of World War I). As the piece's final crash and diminuendo faded, all of Symphony Hall was transfixed, as if a unicorn had suddenly stood upon its stage, then vanished. But then the sound of the St. Petersburg is something nearly as rare.

1 comment:

  1. Temirkanov was responsible for the most powerful account of Carl Nielsen's Third Symphony (the 'Espansiva') I've ever heard it's even better even than Bernstein's. Unforunately, the label it was on, Unicorn-Kanchana, was just about to disappear, and it's hard to find a CD copy of it.

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