St Petersburg Philharmonic/Termirkanov at The Anvil Basingstoke – Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony & Shostakovich’s Fifth – Dmitri Alexeev plays Tchaikovsky

Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 (Classical)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Dmitri Alexeev (piano)

St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 25 March, 2012
Venue: The Anvil, Basingstoke

It’s a mighty big orchestra for a little town. The St Petersburg Philharmonic – once known, like the city, as the Leningrad – paid a visit to The Anvil, Basingstoke’s enviable concert hall, as part of a UK tour. Certainly the most formidable name to grace the hall’s concert season, the SPPO brought three staples of the Russian repertoire, including Shostakovich’s still-contentious Fifth Symphony, premiered by the Philharmonic back in 1937 under its revered conductor Evgeny Mravinsky. Yuri Temirkanov, who succeeded him in 1988, demonstrated his unfussy, efficient conducting style in the symphonies, while Dmitri Alexeev wrestled with the bombast of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.

This rather unadventurous programme opened with an energetic dash through Prokofiev’s Haydnesque ‘Classical’ Symphony. Temirkanov pushed through the outer movements, establishing a fairly relentless pace in each. It came with a certain boisterous and likeable character, luckily, but some scrappy ensemble in three of the four movements was a surprise; this orchestra must have met this music before, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from this performance.

The sweeping tunes of the Tchaikovsky let the strings show off their rich and distinctive tone – the first movement’s opening melody nicely moulded by Temirkanov – and their ample volume was matched by Alexeev’s pounding declamations at the keyboard. He wasn’t always on top of the virtuosic flourishes and the rapid octaves, but his playing in the less-extrovert passages revealed his sensitivity of phrasing and characterisation. A tone of innocence made sense of the second movement’s Andante semplice direction and he raced nimbly through the finale; perhaps, though, a work less prone to grandstanding gestures would have made better use of his talents.

No orchestra can claim to have as close a relationship to the creation of Shostakovich’s symphonies as can the St Petersburg (Leningrad) Philharmonic, but anyone hoping for an authentically grim experience or and ink-barely-dry immediacy to its performance of the Fifth would have been disappointed. Temirkanov steered a prosaic account of the work that rarely plumbed the depths of despair. Of course, there are many views of this work’s meaning and messages, and one that strips back the rhetoric to reveal the music beneath is perfectly valid. The impression, though, was of a score often-played and a path familiar to all; not of burning intensity or desperate commitment. The playing certainly wasn’t lacking: none of the ensemble issues of the Prokofiev were evident and some of that Leningrad zing was still evident, particularly in the bright and direct trumpet sound. Indeed, there were impressively handled moments, such as the swelling crescendos of the Largo, but the finale’s famously ambiguous ending was arrived at rather than built towards.

If only some of the flexibility and spontaneity found in the encore could have arrived sooner. A sumptuous and oddly touching arrangement of Elgar’s Salut d’Amour was charmingly played with a distinctly foreign accent, as though its composer had grown up in the shadow of the Urals, rather than the Malverns.

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