There can be nothing quite like hearing an orchestra that is entirely steeped in the history and tradition of the music it is playing. There are also times, however, when it can produce dividends for an ensemble to bring a fresh pair of eyes to a piece, free from any of the associations that it might normally carry. As a result, this second Prom in the 2015 season from the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of its Artistic Director and Chief Conductor Yuri Temirkanov, featured the best of both worlds by including pieces by Russian masters Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, alongside one from that most English of composers, Elgar.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s fourteenth opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1903-5) actually contains many Wagnerian elements, although the manner in which he built on the German’s own innovations still make his composition overwhelmingly Russian in style. Nevertheless, in this excellent performance of the symphonic pictures (excerpts from the opera compiled in 1905) it was interesting to consider how Rimsky-Korsakov developed the ‘Forest Murmurs’ from Siegfried alongside how he portrayed a battle by clashing a Russian folk-style tune with a ‘Tartar’ theme (rendered by actually distorting a genuine Russian song).
Julia Fischer was the soloist for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1878). She produced a very striking sound as she brought a certain stridency to her bowing while overall ensuring that her performance was clear, light and precise. Initially all this seemed a little at odds with the far richer sound emanating from the orchestra, although the transfer of the main violin theme to the group during the first movement was effective precisely because of the contrast. Over the course of the concerto, however, it seemed as if both soloist and orchestra did work towards converging their sounds to strong effect, and particularly noteworthy were Fischer’s playing in the Canzonetta and the clean, assertive sound from the brass.
If the performance of Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’), Op. 36 (1898-9) lacked a little in ‘homely mysticism’ it certainly succeeded in bringing a sense of grandeur to the work. Temirkanov and the orchestra, who are actually no strangers to the piece, had clearly studied the score hard as their obedience to its markings was strong throughout. This in itself helped to bring things out that other ensembles might easily have overlooked, and the strengths of this performance were manifested in a variety of ways. On the one hand, the rich stridency of the bowing in W.M.B. was entirely appropriate and yet felt very Russian, as did the energy and humour that were brought to Troyte. Nimrod, on the other hand, was played so straight, presumably because it had been studied so carefully, that it felt very English, while the approach in the Finale: E.D.U. seemed to combine a certain English sensibility with Russian panache.
With the evening also including three notable encores – Paganini’s Caprice No. 17 in E flat (performed by Fischer before the interval), Elgar’s Salut d’Amour (‘Liebesgruss’), Op. 12 and the Vivo from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite – this was a highly enjoyable concert from an orchestra that more than justified its appearance at the Proms festival after an eleven year absence.