St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra

Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 (Classical)
Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19
Swan Lake, Op.20 [excerpts]

Sayaka Shoji (violin)

St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 18 February, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Even in the 900-seat Cadogan Hall there were a goodly number of empty seats for the St Petersburg Philharmonic, as there had been for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s second Barbican Hall concert the previous weekend. In the case of the St Petersburg one suspects that the lack of a famous soloist coupled with the location may have had something to do with it – but in both cases a failure to read the market correctly coupled with excessive prices was undoubtedly a factor. With such a plethora of modestly priced musical events to choose from in London, it is inviting box office disaster to price the majority of the seats from £39.00-£49.00, especially in a location such as Cadogan Hall which is still establishing itself.

Initially, the St Petersburg Philharmonic appeared discomfited but, after a slightly rough and ready first movement, Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony soon recovered its balance with a finely poised slow movement and a characterful ‘Gavotte’. This is music the orchestra has in its bones and Yuri Temirkanov relishes its dry wit. Antiphonal violins helped as did the distinctive viola section, but this was still routine – albeit good routine – and well below what this orchestra is capable of.

However, better – much better – was to come with the relatively unknown 23-year-old Sayaka Shoji’s account of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto (relatively unknown she may still be but she has already played with the Berlin (Jansons), Israel (Mehta) and New York Philharmonics (Maazel), as well as touring Japan with the Bamberg Symphony and Jonathan Nott). Perhaps the most salient point in her biography is her connection with her teacher, the famous Zakhar Bron. This was a spellbinding account from first note to last, not always the most beautiful sound but – despite Shoji’s diminutive size – playing of quite remarkable presence and assurance. When so many violinists settle for bland uniformity, how wonderful to hear playing of such evident charisma and passionate commitment.

Prokofiev’s concerto may only last about 20 minutes or so but the soloist is seldom silent. Just when one hurdle has been surmounted the composer throws something even more demanding at the violinist, much of the writing lying stratospherically high. Temirkanov and a mesmerised orchestra provided the most solicitous of accompaniments. Watch out for Sayaka Shoji. The title of the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” might equally well describe her playing! There was a substantial and unusual encore in the form of Max Reger’s Prelude and Fugue in G minor, magisterially despatched.

Part of the fascination aroused by this concert was prompted by the very idea of hearing an orchestra as full-blooded as the St Petersburg playing in such a relatively small hall. In fact, as the excerpts from Swan Lake made very clear, given Temirkanov’s light hand on the tiller (and, in this case, a slightly reduced string section) and some clever seating (the trombones were at the extreme right of the stage immediately behind the second violins facing the conductor rather than the audience), it is possible for a more or less full-sized orchestra to produce the most beautiful sounds in this venue. Even when heard close up the sound was never less than beautiful.

Temirkanov’s selection from Tchaikovsky’s ballet-score was unusually generous and included all the character dances from Act Three and the ‘Pas de deux’ from Act Two with its solos for violin and cello (played here with appropriately Slavic temperament by Lev Klychkov and Sergei Slovachevsky) and the famous ‘Waltz’. However many times one has heard this music from the orchestra pit when dance to, there is an added frisson to hearing it played by ‘the home team’.

There were two encores, one of them predictable (‘Trépak’ from The Nutcracker), the other less so (Elgar’s Salut d’amour).

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