Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.107
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)
Natalia Gutman (cello)
St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yan Pascal Tortelier
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 18 October, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Yuri Temirkanov was to have conducted but had to withdraw due to illness. His replacement, Yan Pascal Tortelier, kept the advertised programme but one was constantly wondering what Temirkanov’s approach would have been. His presence was the missing ingredient, yet there was much to enjoy, particularly after this reviewer’s brutalising experience with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra the previous evening.
An unusual, and welcome, orchestral layout was used. There were no raised platforms for the players. The brass was set to the conductor’s right, behind the violas and second violins. The double basses (10 for the Liadov and Tchaikovsky) were behind the first violins. The net effect was a reined-in sound that promoted degrees of mystery. Having the brass, in particular, ‘buried’ in this way was an aid to better balance, which made its contribution all the more effective.
Among Liadov’s short orchestral pieces is this tone poem based on a Russian folk-tale of the phantom/witch Kikimora, who tormented villagers because of her spite for humanity. A resigned sense pervaded the air, those 10 basses opening the work with glorious mystery. The cor anglais worked magnificently against violins and displayed the spontaneity that might accompany Kikimora’s fiendish plans, the humorous close (it drew chortles) at odds with the rest.
Natalia Gutman is no stranger to Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto (she has recorded it, with Temirkanov) and it showed. Other than a quick glance to Tortelier at the start – the cello opens the work – she played with her eyes closed and did not look back, giving unremitting intensity. This lack of engagement with the orchestra yielded positive results: the cello seemed a stranger to the orchestral world and if Shostakovich were an outcast from mother Russia then so too is the cello, defiant in its expressions of individuality.
With a youthful lilt, which looks back to Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, Gutman imbued the first movement with relentless energy. The second movement found the strings in great form, with pent-up feeling through subdued playing. Dignified defiance from Gutman, typical of her playing throughout the concerto, shone through in heroic fashion. An unnerving celesta created stillness here, too. For the cadenza, Gutman probed magnificently the throaty depths of struggle, magnifying the work’s take on the emptiness and cruelty that the world can produce. She dominated the finale, the clean sound of the orchestra contrasting appositely and a visceral close rounded off a compelling and deep interpretation of this mercurial work. As an encore Gutman offered some unaccompanied Bach.
The St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra gave the premiere of the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony under the composer’s direction in 1893 (Modest Tchaikovsky’s title being adopted by his brother). The performance here hit all the right notes, and got off to a terrific start – staring in to the abyss – but such feelings were illusory, for the slow finale had been fatally wounded by thunderous applause greeting the end of the third-movement ‘March’. In fact, there were gasps of surprise when the finale began!
The opening was stark in its emptiness and brass chorales suitably earthy. The thunderbolt that shook the orchestra into febrile playing rocked any ideas of comfort. Pain, loss and angst all found themselves in the soaring unison of strings before the opening material returned to bring us into calmer shores – quite a contrast. The 5/4 ‘Waltz’ ably mixed dancing qualities with yet more premonitions of tragedy though the overall sound was too big; intimacy yields bigger rewards here. The succeeding ‘March’ was held back, too slow, Tortelier keen on exploring every detail at the expense of momentum. Applause would have ruined this, but to dash through this movement and then crash-in with the finale, with the heart-rending opening, is a phenomenal experience.
Nevertheless, some whirlwind effects in the ‘March’ were magnificent and the brass eruptions were not dampened by Tortelier’s rigid conducting. The finale itself was a transient affair; orgiastic at its opening and then all over, but with not much happening in between. Tortelier’s leaping (looking like he was going to dive in to the orchestra) was hardly going to explore the burning emotions of this enigmatic music.
An encore seemed ready but, thankfully, Tortelier demurred. There’s no need for anything else after final movement.