The opening night of The Anvil’s 2017-18 International Concert Series featured the St Petersburg Symphony (this city’s ‘other’ orchestra) at the start of its UK cross-country tour. Under an undemonstrative Vladimir Altschuler there was playing of great assurance and at times fiery passion: this ensemble can really pack a hefty punch.
Beginning with Prokofiev’s Haydn-inspired ‘Classical’ Symphony (1917), wilfully out of kilter with its times, if there was a miscalculation it was employing the full complement of strings (founded on eight double basses). The full-blooded tone removed any possibility of playfulness inherent to this work – it’s a soufflé not a steamed pudding. The first movement’s delicate violin writing requires considerably cleaner intonation than heard here, but things improved in the unhurried Larghetto, where woodwinds glittered and violins floated in stately splendour. The mocking Gavotte was suitably ponderous, while the scampering Finale brought out zesty execution and smiles.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade brought secure but variable playing – strikingly fresh at times, routine at others. Thanks to rich-toned trombones the opening was suitably ominous and the swelling seas gradually gained forward impulse – if more powerful than dramatic. More evocative was Aleksandr Shustin’s violin, a seductive vision of the story-telling bride. ‘The Tale of the Kalandar Prince’ was enriched by an exquisite partnership from harp and violin and then a beguiling clarinet. Ardent string tone warmed ‘The Young Prince and the Young Princess’ where flickering flute and clarinet charmed, as did the exotic central panel where balance, timbre and mood were perfectly caught. The Festival scene was scintillating, on the edge of tripping over itself, with trumpets to the fore and then a poetic conclusion.
I moved seat for the Tchaikovsky: there was now a bloom to the sound to soften previous hard edges and greater depth of tone. The playing had precision and polish as if Altschuler was directing with a wand, not a baton. This was a no-nonsense rendition with forward momentum and sweep, relaxing only a whisker for the elegantly-sculpted clarinet solo and with the conductor pushing hard towards the close, brass and strings responding with thrilling urgency. A mellifluous oboe solo from Aleksei Tces brought coolness to a thoughtfully-shaped Andantino and the third movement was mesmerising for its pizzicatos creating subtle waves of sound like a field of wheat and superb brass coordination, spoilt only by a mysterious rattle coming from the podium. From then on Altschuler coaxed power and discipline from the players, bringing to the Finale a thundering sense of conviction and a triumphant ending.
Two encores were added to this already generous programme, selections from Glazunov’s music for the ballet Raymonda – an ‘Entr’acte’ and the ‘Grand pas espagnol’.