St Petersburg Philharmonic 2

Ruslan and Ludmila – Dances
Mussorgsky, orch. Shostakovich
Songs and Dances of Death
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)

St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 24 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In gratifyingly neutral light, a near capacity audience assembled to witness this enjoyable if unadventurous programme. Yuri Temirkanov has had Evgeny Mravinsky’s old orchestra at his disposal for some time now, but he is not an orchestral trainer in the manner of Mariss Jansons let alone Mravinsky himself, and does not set much store by absolute rhythmic precision and has sadly little interest in new repertoire. On the positive side, both the famous St Petersburg strings (tonally husky if no longer real heavyweights) and the forward, agile winds remain distinctive. Economic realties being what they are in the post-Soviet period, one expected worse, though the first clarinet could do with a better instrument and the leader’s soupy style borders on the archaic.

The team eased themselves in with the opening Glinka sequence, nicely turned if plainly inconsequential. But then even the Mussorgsky seemed a little lightweight. No doubt these songs suit a darker, deeper, more dangerous kind of Russian voice than the lyric baritone of ageing heartthrob Dmitri Hvorostovsky. He varied his sound with some success, but the grit and gravitas of “The field-marshal” was missing, his beautiful tone used to better effect in the “Lullaby” and the “Serenade”. Temirkanov accompanied with sensitivity, taking care not to overwhelm the soloist and placing the luminous concluding chords of the “Trepak” (as re-imagined by Shostakovich) with exceptional care. The conductor seemed to be enjoying himself hugely in the Symphonic Dances too, yet one felt he was intervening not so much to point up the sense of unease beneath Rachmaninov’s well-honed surfaces as to indulge each passing whim of his own. For all its undoubted theatricality, the interpretation failed to do justice to the more astringent aspects of the score. Textures were puddingy, key entrances uncued.

Perhaps I am being too negative. The conductor set an ideal tempo for all three dances with the queasy, Iron Curtain timbre of the alto saxophone very striking in the contrasting lyrical idea of the first. Its coda was none the less too comfortable, less poignant than it should be. And I did not much care for Temirkanov’s meandering rubato in the second movement waltz. It was the finale that nearly came to grief. Towards the end of the central Lento assai episode, Temirkanov left the strings unsure of his intentions in the cathartic passage from fig. 80. He may grasp the significance of the music – the last gasp of a nineteenth-century romantic tradition untainted by cynicism, commercialism or any of the critically approved modern ‘isms’ of its day and ours. What he gave us was a mess. Fortunately the closing pages recovered much of the requisite sweep and that final, enigmatic gong stroke was permitted to resound, a good way of inhibiting over-immediate applause.

The crowd, well-behaved apart from a few fortissimo droppages, was rewarded with an exquisite account of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina Prelude – the best playing of the night – and a rushed, inarticulate chunk of Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss – probably the worst. A case of mixed messages all round.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 7 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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