It was very much the performance as expected from the St Petersburg Philharmonic under their veteran chief conductor Yuri Temirkanov. But that is saying a very great deal: they are one of the greatest orchestras in the world, and their sound is quite inimitable.
This is what orchestras used to sound like in the golden age. There are 65 strings, with the extra cellos and basses (by proportion, and in comparison with what we usually consider a large orchestra) lending marvellous depth of tone, and Temirkanov enhances the effect (already considerable because of the committed way they play) by tucking his brass away at the side of the platform.
Never look at the brass – it only encourages them, Richard Strauss used to say. Well, he does look at them, but they certainly know their place. The orchestra is dominated by its strings and percussion. And (as we soon heard in the Adagio Of Spartacus And Phrygia from Khachaturian’s ballet, Spartacus – aka the Onedin Line theme) it’s an orchestra that breathes and sings its music. Temirkanov’s baton-less beat is clear but wonderfully flexible, and they know how to follow it and sound spontaneous while retaining unanimity.
The other Spartacus excerpt – Dance of the Gaditranian Maidens and Victory of Spartacus – may not be greatest music ever written, but it was richly coloured and glamorously presented. Temirkanov was even almost seen to smile.
Then came Nicolai Lugansky, one of Russia’s greatest virtuoso pianists (possibly the last of a long tradition of hot-house brilliance schooled from infancy), in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini. A reduced string body allowed the orchestra to provide beautifully precise articulation in the lighter, faster passages … we never could forget that theme was written for violin and by Paganini! The playing was full of rhythmic life and there was some glorious expressive playing in the real Russian manner – they even managed to make the lovely major-key variation 18 sound melancholic, just as with the Adagio from Spartacus.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is meant to be a showpiece for orchestra, with its vital solo role for violin (expertly played by leader Lev Klychkov) and its lovely horn and woodwind solos. Oddly, things began a little less precisely than before and somewhat lifelessly: maybe trying too hard to make the piece sound ‘symphonic’ (though that’s a word they over-used in the 19th century to mean anything where an early theme gets transformed or reprised as the work goes on).
But once Temirkanov put his spectacles on again in the second movement and gave his principals a gleaming spotlight (the horn solos were faultless, and the principal oboe followed the maestro’s every twitch) it took off properly. The third wove its familiar Romantic spell, and the fourth ended with a striking sound-balance in the final bars as Klychkov’s pianissimo high harmonic hovered over the gentle growl of those rich cellos and basses.