St Petersburg Philharmonic – 13 March

The Enchanted Lake
Piano Concerto No.3
Symphonic Dances

Nikolai Demidenko (piano)

St Petersburg Philharmonic
Yuri Temirkanov

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 March, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The warmth and precision of the St Petersburg Philharmonic was much in evidence – from velvety and husking basses to pinpoint treble frequencies. Yuri Temirkanov literally guides with his hands; a big gesture is rare, personal identification with the music heard rather than seen.

Liadov’s lake – calm, magical and with a hint of threat – caught the ear with pianissimo and ripple, a fine example of the Orchestra’s subtlety of variegation, equally apparent in the first encore, the Prelude to Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh – birdsong, rustling leaves and an expansive lyrical centre, one of those Russian folksongs that did such sterling service during the nineteenth century, the strings (violins antiphonal) unforced in collective eloquence. The second encore, the March from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, was militaristic, hard edged and short of its fantastical quotient.

The advertised Prokofiev found your reviewer enjoying more than usual its sectional fancies, and while the cut-and-paste Finale is beyond salvation, Demidenko’s pearly toned and note-pure Fazioli – somewhat colour-starved too – blended beautifully with the orchestra’s transparent timbres. Not a definitive or fully rehearsed rendition, Demidenko’s considered view abounded with attack and wit, with much to relish as he shimmied in equality with the orchestra, Prokofiev’s orchestration revealed as less heavy handed, more pointillistic than is usual. Reflective episodes in the first movement were particularly expressive, with the Variations finely characterised, Temirkanov launching this second movement with marionette delight, he and Demidenko combining effectively for a stiletto-like final chord, bass drum and Demidenko’s left hand in thudding accord.

Rachmaninov’s swansong, pleasingly titled, is really Symphony No.4, one of the composer’s most original, personal and consummately scored works, albeit with a few moments of slippage (the Third Symphony is more consistently strong), composed for Ormandy and his Philadelphia Orchestra (who made an incomparable recording). For all the dexterity of this St Petersburg account, dark-hued (and, like all Russian performances it seems, without the piano’s chromatic scale in the first movement), some stitches were dropped, Temirkanov not wholly on top of the music’s nodal points. Excellent start with a well-judged ’Non Allegro’, save the ’non’ had disappeared come the recapitulation, which underlined the volatility if not symphonic aspirations. The baleful-toned saxophone-led middle section avoided saccharine excess. Temirkanov stressed human dimensions – regrets, sweet remembrance, fears, premonitions; the waspish muted brass in the second movement waltz had real malevolence, while the quicksilver scherzo dispersed fate with nimble brio.

The long final movement was scintillating in the fast music, if a mite driven and mechanical – a momentous journey of no return – while slower-moving apprehensions were kept on the move, removing (somewhat) doubts as to Rachmaninov’s rambling idiom. The closing, cataclysmic bars were not well handled though. Summoning a somewhat garish final flourish, Temirkanov opted (like some other conductors) to let the gong ring on, not in the score but picked up from the ’tenuto’ marking in the two-piano version. If you’re going to prolong this moment then the audience needs to know the length of ’hold’, which Temirkanov was vague about; one person applauded, so they all did!

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