To listen to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra play Rachmaninoff is to step into a time machine, to enter a sonic world untouched by the anxieties and aggressive urgency of the 20th century. Friday (Feb. 28) at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego, maestro Yuri Temirkanov led this orchestra, currently touring North America, in a rewarding program of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.
Supremely assured and preternaturally confident, this august orchestra easily holds it own among the elite symphony orchestras of Europe and North America. Over 100 players covered every inch of the modest Balboa stage, filling the hall with a dark, rich, slightly foreboding orchestral sound that no western orchestra I know of comes close to approximating.
From the solemn rumble of the contrabasses—heard in stark, bold unison solo in the opening strains of the Rachnaminoff Second Symphony in E Minor—to the steely top of the violins, the sheer tensile strength of the St. Pertersburg strings commanded the listener’s attention. But it is what Temirkanov did with this muscle that carried us away. Lingering just long enough at the crest of the composer’s effulgent phrases and easing into shimmering climaxes, the aristocratic conductor was able to suspend time without belaboring it. He relished Rachmaninoff’s expansive, languorous phrases without wallowing in them.
From our vantage point after a century of chasing after the avant garde, it is easy to side with Rachmaninoff’s contemporaries—Debussy, Mahler, and Schoenberg—who were pressing orchestral music into daring, uncharted waters, while this Russian composer was content to follow in the safer footsteps of Tchaikovsky and Taneyev (his teacher, to whom the symphony is dedicated). But to hear an orchestra such as the St. Petersburg Philharmonic give this Second Symphony such a profound and empathetic account is to understand the rewards of developing and enriching a tradition. Art is not necessarily better simply because it is “new and improved!”
In the glorious Adagio movement, Principal Clarinet Andrey Laukhin offered a gentle, ardent solo that captured the composer’s heart-on-his-sleeve convictions, and the astonishing unity of all 17 first violins was nothing less than breathtaking.[php snippet=1]
Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto in G Minor, Op. 63, proved a wise foil to the Rachmaninoff: light, transparent textures coupled with relaxed, rhapsodic structures. Temirkanov presided over this unorthodox but nevertheless winsome concerto with deft aplomb.
The young Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang lavished her warm, animated timbre on the composer’s eminently tonal and frequently dulcet solo line. I enjoyed equally the sardonic edge she gave her part in the final Allegro, which called upon her ample technique at every turn.
Opening the concert with Rossini’s familiar Overture to The Barber of Seville, a work that hardly needs 100 players, made clear just how delicately this orchestra can turn a phrase and then surprise us with a meteoric burst of energy.
The orchestra offered a plush arrangement of Edward Elgar’s “Salut d’Amour” as its encore.