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Concert Review

Russians in Paris

By Marc Haegeman
Boris Belkin, violin
Nikolai Demidenko, piano
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 17 & 18 November 2012

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra is a frequent guest at the Paris Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Last November, the orchestra and their artistic director and principal conductor Yuri Temirkanov returned for an all-Russian weekend, performing music by Prokofieff and Tchaikovsky.

Without doubt it's Temirkanov's fate to live till the end of his days in the shadow of his legendary predecessor Evgeny Mravinsky, who was, as we are always reminded, the (then) Leningrad Philharmonic's director for fifty years. On the other hand, compared to flamboyant and hyped maestros like Valery Gergiev of the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, Temirkanov has always kept a boringly low-profile. But still, the fact remains that Temirkanov has been leading the Philharmonic since 1988 and through very different times than Mravinsky. The results of that continuity, of which music directors in the West can only dream, are there. The St. Petersburg Philharmonic may no longer be the same formation as it was in bygone Soviet times (nor does it need to be), but there is no denying this is still a formidable, world-class ensemble that has something very special to say, particularly in its "own" repertory. And that's precisely what they gave us in Paris.

74-year old Yuri Temirkanov is this quiet, debonair magician. He conducts without a baton and doesn't seem to beat time, but draws parts of the music with these waving or caressing hand movements that may seem as indecipherable to outsiders as Gergiev's fluttering fingers. Yet to his orchestra every move was unequivocally clear and one will be hard pressed to find a more committed and disciplined ensemble as the St. Petersburg Philharmonic appeared here in these two concerts. In spite of having played this repertory for decades, Temirkanov still used a score, even if it was clear to anybody from his almost nonchalant sculpting that he indeed knows this music inside out.

The first evening was all-Prokofieff, with the Second Violin Concerto, featuring Boris Belkin as soloist, and fragments from the ballet Roméo and Juliet – both dating from 1935. The following day Nikolai Demidenko performed Prokofieff's Third Piano Concerto, while Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony followed as the main course.

Interestingly, Prokofieff himself gave several concerts in this theatre between 1923-1924. On 23 January 1932 the composer also played his 3rd Piano Concerto (written in Brittany in 1921, albeit premiered in Chicago) here at the Champs-Elysées with Piero Coppola, some months before they would record it with the London Symphony Orchestra.

What struck immediately about the concertos was that both Belkin and Demidenko sounded like integral parts of the orchestra. They are commanding, mature artists whose stage manner is perfectly poised. (Incidentally, Belkin and Demidenko are both graduates from the Moscow Conservatory, and émigrés, the former living in Israel, the latter in the UK). Their performances were devoid of all showiness and they shared with Temirkanov not only a profound understanding of the music, but also a totally convincing way of highlighting Prokofieff's peculiar lyricism, often masked by these incisive rhythms and harmonic textures. It was music-making at its most natural, leaving us unaware of any technical difficulties. Not that it was dull or lacking in character by any means. On the contrary, Belkin's always elegant violin compellingly joined the cantilena-like writing of the first and second movements with the strident dynamism of the closing Allegro ben marcato. His warm sonority was surrounded by the carefully dosed coloring of the orchestra, while Temirkanov took care not to overwhelm his soloist.

With Nikolai Demidenko, too, there was some stunning virtuosity but it remained a necessary part of the whole structure and it never felt as playing to the gallery. Temirkanov secured an ideal balance again. It was tempting to praise most of all the middle Andantino con variazioni, where Demidenko's colorful, sometimes intimate piano dialogued or fused with the orchestra in an often beguiling manner – what amazing woodwinds, and such eerie beauty achieved in the 4th variation. Yet eventually it was in the fast passages like that hair-raising buildup toward the return of the theme in the 2nd movement, or during the energetic rhythms of the last movement that the collaboration proved most revelatory. The encores that Demidenko played, two Fairytales from Nikolai Medtner, were in much the same vein, preserving clarity and a maximum of expressivity in these structurally complex and note-saturated works.

Temirkanov completed the first evening with a tremendous account of Roméo and Juliet. Prokofieff's first ballet after his return to his homeland remains his most sublime effort in the genre – and indeed, as many balletomanes will assure us, the greatest ballet music of the 20th century. Temirkanov offered a somewhat bizarre selection, taken mostly from the 2nd Suite (Op. 64ter) which the composer culled from the full-length ballet. Even with two numbers added from the 1st Suite (Op. 64bis), it was a frustratingly short survey of a ballet that normally lasts over 2 hours, all the more so because the playing was that exceptional.

Temirkanov's brisk tempi gave his traversal plenty of vivacity and sweep, but he knew precisely when to slow down and maintained a convincing balance between the overall picture and attention for detail. From the arrogant parade of The Montagues and the Capulets by way of the poignant lyricism of Roméo and Juliet Before Parting to the devastating scene at Juliet's tomb or the harrowing toccata-like run towards the abyss in the Death of Tybalt, Temirkanov captured every scene with utmost evocative power. A few oddities like the heavily accentuated intro to Friar Laurence or the pointed rhythm of the Dance of the girls with lillies couldn't conceal this was truly special. The flexibility of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic was simply outstanding. From barely audible pianissimi to fortissimi that knocked you out of your chair, their dynamic range seemed unlimited. And what color this orchestra produces. The variety of sonorities was extraordinary, the transparency ideal. Prokofieff's orchestration was revealed in all its brilliance, including instruments often buried underneath the orchestral mass – saxophone, celesta, harps and piano.

Temirkanov let his orchestra relax with two splendid encores, the romantic final scene from Prokofieff's Cinderella and a Tango from Albeniz in Rodion Shchedrin's delightful arrangement.

The next day we were treated to an electrifying reading of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. This is of course even more St. Petersburg Philharmonic core-business since the Mravinsky days. But it's no less heartening to find out that this tradition is continued. Even if the Philharmonic generally sounds more polished than compared with the celebrated Mravinsky recordings, this remains nonetheless an orchestra of exceptional fluidity, maintaining a balance between clarity, eloquence and a very particular Russian sonority. It suffices to hear Western orchestras in this repertoire to understand the difference. The impact of the dark-hued massed strings (the lower strings create a sonic screen you can almost pick holes in), the magnificently colored woodwinds (nowhere more so as in the Andantino in modo di canzona), the raw power of the brass and percussion, all blend to generate a uniquely dramatic canvas that suits Tchaikovsky like a glove. Add to that Temirkanov's grasp of the symphony's structure, his instinctive phrasing, including all-sweeping crescendos and explosive tutti, a fair dose of theatricality in delivery, but also lyricism when required (the second theme of the first movement; the 2nd movement) and you get a reading that ideally matches the work's extreme emotions. The Scherzo with its pizzicati was exemplary in its precision, but so was the final Allegro con fuoco characteristically taken at breakneck speed. All the "Russian emotion" was there in spades, yet the quality of the middle movements in this performance guaranteed that much-needed formal balance in a work that also takes Western symphonic writing as a model.

Temirkanov ended the concert again with two surprisingly relaxed encores, a sweetly poised Salut d'amour from Edward Elgar and a fragment from Igor Stravinsky's Pulcinella, featuring solo trombone and contrabass.

More of this, please!

Copyright © 2012, Marc Haegeman