Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances" begins softly, and almost immediately explodes into a crescendo. This music is so frequently performed that one tends to take the opening for granted. But when conductor Mariss Jansons and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic performed that one tends to take the opening for granted .But when conductor Marriss Jansons and the ST. Petersburg Philharmonic performed the piece Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center,it startled the ear.
That burst by the orchestra's lower strings did not sound as if made by instruments; it was as if one of the biggest and darkest of Russian bassos -- someone on the order of a Feodor Chaliapin or an Alexander Kipnis -- had suddenly roared.
This remarkable moment was only the first of many in an astonishing performance. When American orchestras play Rachmaninoff's music, they -- whether intentionally or not -- condescend to it. The "Symphonic Dances" can sound like a Hollywood score or -- particularly in its jazzy, syncopated passages -- like a refugee from Tin Pan Alley. But this orchestra and its Latvian-born, Russian-trained associate principal conductor performed this music with an utterly personal approach that gave it an almost vocal thrust and with an unsentimental and dramatic manner that illuminated it as if by lightning. There was no question that a great orchestra and a superb conductor were at work.
This St. Petersburg orchestra, of course, used to be called the Leningrad Philharmonic. It was the former Soviet Union's oldest and greatest orchestra -- the only one that (in terms of ensemble, discipline and virtuosity) could compete with the best in the West.
It still can. The redoubtable Yuri Temirkanov is now its principal conductor, sharing duties with the equally (and perhaps even more) talented Jansons. But no matter who stands on the podium, a ghost casts a gigantic shadow: the spirit of Evgeny Mravinsky who from 1938 until his death in 1988 ruled the Leningrad Philharmonic and made it the equal of what Fritz Reiner created in Chicago and what George Szell built in Cleveland. To Western ears, some of the Russian wind playing may sound a little watery. But no orchestra plays with greater discipline and vitality and with so unified and beautiful a string tone as the St. Petersburg.
The program began with a reading of Rossini's overture to "La Gazza Ladra" in which the grandiloquence of the opening was followed by deft playing that produced sparkle and vivacity. Orchestra and conductor also sensitively accompanied Shlomo Mintz in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. The violinist combined exhilarating fire (in the outer movements) with inward tenderness (in the slow movement). But while Mintz's fearless risk-taking is one of the qualities that places him among our great violinists, his take-no-prisoners approach made one worry about its consequences for his Stradivari violin -- he is currently playing the Zahn violin, a 1719 instrument on loan to him from a French brandy firm -- which he sometimes threatened to push beyond its limits. Like Jascha Heifetz and Isaac Stern before him, one suspects that Mintz would benefit from a more brilliant and more forgiving Guarneri.