Opera + Classical Music Reviews

St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra / Temirkanov @ Barbican Hall, London

23 November 2005

Yuri Temirkanov may not be quite as well-known to the general public as his compatriot Valery Gergiev, but he is certainly no less inspiring a musician. This Barbican concert with the St Petersburg Philharmonic (of which he has been Music Director since 1988) showed once again what a special relationship he has with the orchestra, his fluttering hands and flowing arms enthusing the players to bring warmth and zest to the music.

The Russian repertoire always suits them best, and the first of Prokofiev’s suites from his ballet Cinderella left one wanting to hear them play the whole score. The string sound in the Introduction gave a chilly background to the life of the fairytale’s protagonist, whilst the bickering of the ugly sisters was vividly portrayed. The harp glissando in the fourth movement was just one of many striking details that Temirkanov took care to bring through, and if the manic tempo of Cinderella goes to the ball somewhat eluded the xylophonist, it never marred a stirring rendition.

Cinderella’s waltz highlighted the swaying of the players’ bodies in perfect unity, a characteristic of only the greatest orchestras. And Midnight was the perfect showcase for the percussion instruments, piano and glockenspiel making an especial impact in this most vibrant of ballet scenes.

Next up was Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini played by the young Siberian pianist Denis Matsuev. As his large physique promised, he brought heft to the music. Less expected was the yearning lyricism of the eighteenth variation, for instance, or the nimble agility of the twenty-fourth. The orchestra was sensitive but never passive; the interaction between piano and pizzicato violins in the D minor twelfth variation was characteristic of an ensemble performance. Matsuev’s magisterial contribution to the event was topped off by a flashy encore of variations on Rossini’s Largo al factotum.

After the interval was Brahms’ Second Symphony. Perhaps it was a shame the Russian forces weren’t playing something from their native repertoire, but the performance was persuasive and one can understand Temirkanov’s desire to broaden their horizons.

The brass section was exceptionally sonorous in the first movement, whilst the cellos’ opening of the second was searching and mysterious. The Ländler theme of the third movement gave way to devilish variations, which were lapped up by the wind instruments. Finally to the fourth movement, and the first piece of unequivocal sunshine in the entire symphony. The big cadential gestures were underpinned by the imposing double basses, and the movement climaxed with the violins thrilling the senses in the tricky scalic passages.

Encores by Schubert and Tchaikovsky sent us spinning into the night, after a varied programme played with exceptional style. When Temirkanov comes to conduct the LSO in May the results are guaranteed to be special.

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St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra / Temirkanov @ Barbican Hall, London