Performance more than meets the ear

Tour: Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic elicit cheers from the crowd at the Meyerhoff.

March 13, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There is nothing quite like the sound of history - and virtuosity. It's the sound of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, heard to stunning effect this week as the orchestra visited Washington and Baltimore on its exhausting U.S. tour with music director Yuri Temirkanov.

Another extraordinary sound was heard, too: the roar of an emotionally charged audience. The cheering Monday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was more gutsy, spontaneous and sustained than any I've encountered there so far; it was just as demonstrative the night before at the Kennedy Center and last week at New York's Carnegie Hall.

An orchestra doesn't generate that sort of response just by playing well; lots of orchestras play well. Something else has to be involved, something visceral - maybe even spiritual.

That's the word that came to mind when the artists turned to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, a score that says so much about the Soviet era and the Russian character. Like many of the composer's symphonies, this one received its first performance by the St. Petersburg (then called the Leningrad) Philharmonic. So when this orchestra plays it, you can't miss that sound of history. There also was no mistaking the work's inner meanings as Temirkanov addressed the first movement's anger, the second's sardonic bite and the third's angst.

As for the finale, which Soviet authorities confused with triumph when the piece was premiered, the conductor caught its edge of despair. He paced the coda deliberately to drive home its hollowness and had the strings dig powerfully into their high, repeated notes, which Mstislav Rostropovich memorably likened to the screams of victims on the rack.

The orchestra's playing had tremendous expressive weight and discipline. Contributions from the oboe, piccolo and bassoons were especially gratifying; the brass summoned a suitably brutal force when needed, but also demonstrated remarkable control. And those strings - it would be hard to get more unanimity of tone and articulation, unless there was only one player in each section.

On Sunday, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 was equally impressive, with a similar combination of interpretive intensity and sheer bravura. The opening dash of the finale was taken at what seemed an even more breakneck tempo than favored by Temirkanov's predecessor, Evgeny Mravinsky, but the players didn't break a sweat.

If anything, the speed and accuracy achieved by the strings at the explosive start of The Death of Tybalt from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, one of Monday's encores, was even more astonishing.

Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 also received a sweeping account Monday. What soloist Dmitri Alexeev sometimes lacked in tone and polish, he made up for in communicative phrasing. Yefim Bronfman wrestled Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 to the ground on Sunday, somehow delivering more spectacular firepower than he had in New York and still finding room for occasional sensitivity.

Both pianists enjoyed seamless partnering from Temirkanov and, except for a few tired, out-of-sorts moments Monday, vibrant support from the orchestra.

Monday's program also contained Ergo, a recent, fascinating work by eminent contemporary composer Giya Kancheli. (Why hasn't Temirkanov programmed music by this native of the Republic of Georgia with the BSO?). Threading through the slow-moving, brilliantly orchestrated score are snippets of what seems to be a jaunty cabaret song, as if remembered in a fitful dream. Sudden explosions punctuate the reverie, which ultimately dissolves in wisps of sound - though the wisps were drowned out by a bronchial brigade in the hall.

The encores were as rewarding as the main items. On Sunday, Temirkanov led an exquisite account of the idyllic Prelude to Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, which featured delicately nuanced work from the strings and woodwinds, and put the ensemble through dizzying paces in the Trepak from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker.

Complementing the Prokofiev encore on Monday was the only non-Russian music played on the visit - one of the conductor's favorite pieces, Nimrod, from Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations. (It's the same encore he featured so memorably on his European tour with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last fall).

The opening notes seemed to emerge from some space and time beyond our universe, materializing as gradually as a sunrise. Temirkanov lovingly shaped the long, slow arc of the musical line, controlling every gradation of dynamics so that the peak crescendo and subsequent dissipation back into that silent, distant realm had a truly profound impact.

This whole process took maybe five minutes yet spoke volumes about the rapport between conductor and players, Temirkanov's musical sensibilities and the orchestra's inspiring mastery.

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