St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Temirkanov at Barbican Hall – Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony – Maxim Vengerov plays Prokofiev

Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)

Maxim Vengerov (violin)

St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 24 March, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Maxim VengerovMartha Argerich was to have played Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto but withdrew about a month ago. Instead Maxim Vengerov supplied the dazzle factor. He delivered a restrained account of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, unusually lacking in virtuosity and energy, though this gave the music an enigmatic quality that is not too distant from its ethereal and unreal soundscape. Yuri Temirkanov – conducting the orchestra that he has headed since the death of Evgeney Mravinsky in 1988 – led a pulsating account of the score, his economic gestures generating the magic and fantastical world of the outer movements whilst the short scherzo’s certainty was conveyed with an elephantine tread. Vengerov’s encore was inevitable: the ‘Sarabande’ from the D minor Partita by J. S. Bach: its wistful, longing emotions more the genius of Bach than the self-regarding Vengerov.

Yuri Temirkanov. Photograph: www.imgartists.comOn 5 March 1942 the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony by Shostakovich received its first performance. Henry Wood gave the Western premiere at Maida Vale then at a BBC Prom a week later on 22 June; Toscanini Gave the American premiere on 19 July. The most extraordinary performance was the one in Leningrad, conducted by Karl Eliasberg with the remnants of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra on 13 August. It seems likely that the work is a protest against all forms of totalitarianism: Hitler merely finished the job of destroying Leningrad that Stalin had begun. But to overanalyse and imprint on it political ideals can end up wrecking the work. The way to approach the vast work is, therefore, as Temirkanov did here: play the music straight, and see what happens.

Temirkanov, a creature of habit and routine – witness the minimal gestures and the ceremony of his spectacles being balanced on his nose – rightly demanded attention to the music, and launched into the symphony with stateliness. Heavy with bass, the security of these opening measures unfolded as a rock-steady mammoth first movement, with only the idyl before the side drum heralds the ‘Invasion Theme’ a moment of peace. On the whole, Temirkanov, in non-interventionist mode, produced a ‘Leningrad’ Symphony that had inner-propulsion: it never dragged, was thought-provoking and colourful, was menacing and martial, and entirely musical, and deeply felt. The sheer weight of sound at the close was awesome, a forced victory rather than anything approaching triumphalism.

An encore was not needed, but it was this conductor’s usual: ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, strings sounding gorgeous without becoming heart-on-sleeve.

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