"St Petersburg PO/Temirkanov in Barbican, London"

December 30 2011

Conductor Yuri Temirkanov has spent long enough on the podium to know how to give the punters what they want. The programme for his latest visit with his St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra ticked the right boxes: a dollop of Russianness, followed by a showstopper and a well loved symphony. If only its delivery has been so reliable.

As it was, the show was stolen by the young pianist Denis Matsuev, whose poised, elegant virtuosity found an ideal vehicle in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Just once or twice he gave in to the temptations of flashiness, missing the rhythm in the fast variation for piano, and slightly losing his cool after the thundering cadenza. Most of the time, though, he met the music’s demands with a focused bravado. His encore, an arrangement of Rossini’s Largo al Factotum, had even some of the unflappable orchestra listening open-mouthed.

The orchestra has started the evening on home territory. Prokofiev’s ballet suite for Cinderella has a melancholy edge, and the serious sweep of its introduction brought characteristically expansive, dark-toned sound. But, establishing a pattern that would continue, the delicate detail in the earlier Ball music came across less successfully.

In the second half, their performance of Brahms' Symphony No 2 seemed to have been taken straight off the shelf and briefly dusted down. On the positive side, you may never hear the opening cello melody of the second movement played with such power. But too much of the symphony was played at a variant of loud, and Temirkanov ploughed through several moments of potential magic. At least the final encore, the rollicking Trepak from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, gave the audience more of what they had come for.

Erica Jeal

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