"Brahms is given more glower than glow"

December 30 2011

St. Petersburg Phil/Temirkanov in BARBICAN 25.11.2005

It can be an interesting prospect when a visiting orchestra brings a repertoire that is not normally considered to be within its core. Brahms from St. Petersburg? He’s mainstream for all orchestras, of course, but it was always going to be worth hearing how the prime Romantic classicist fared in the hands of one of the world’s most volatile collections of musicians, alongside the more familiar exports of their fellow Russians.

Brahms’s Second Symphony is often agreed to be his sunniest, but a combination of weight in Yuri Temirkanov’s approach to tempi and the rich, bass-heavy St. Petersburg string sound lent the music a darker air then usual.

The music of the first movement tended to glower rather than glow, ensemble wasn’t always as pristine as one would expect (there was a glaring missed woodwind entry in the opening stages of the work) and, on occasion, an attempt at efficiency stood in for inspiration.

Things were, unsurprisingly, more successful in the Russian half of the programme, before the interval. Tchaikovsky Competition winner Denis Matsuev joined the St. Petersburg players for a scintillating account of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

He was the kind of performance that refreshed every note, if not always in the bestinterests of the music. The precision of his articulation often came across as over-controlled and even precious.

But at his best he brought fresh insight to the solo role. His well-balanced relationship with the orchestra allowed sections such as the famous 18th variation—which some pianists allow to stock out like a sore thumb of over-indulgent swooning—to feel an integrated part of the whole.

If there was a whiff of the circus about Matsuev’s virtuosic display—shades of Kissin in his technical ease—it was only emphasised in his dispatch of a tiendish fantasy on themes from Rossini’s Barber of Seville that he gave as an encore.

The orchestra put on a virtuoso exhibition of its own in the concert’s opening work, the first suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella.

Here, from the bickering ugly sisters (Dumpy and Scrawny in the Russian version of the fairy tale, and exactly what the St. Petersburg Philharmonic isn’t) to the exhilaration of the climactic midnight chimes, the characterisation was vivid, the playing acute, and Temirkanov’s personable conducting at its most expressively florid.

Matthew Rye, The Daily Telegraph

« back