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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Concert Review: Everything is Awesome!

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic plays Shostakovich.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yuri Temirkanov has led the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra since 1988.
Photo courtesy
In 1988, Yuri Temirkanov became music director of what was then the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. Russia was then the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Andrei Gromyko. Perestroika and Glasnost were just around the corner. On Saturday night, Mr. Temirkanov and his orchestra returned to Carnegie Hall, offering a devoted audience a meat and potatoes program of Brahms and Shostakovich, with the latter's Fifth Symphony among his most popular and politically motivated creations.

The Brahms came first: the familiar Piano Concerto No. 1 with pianist Nikolai Lugansky. Mr. Temirkanov and his orchestra offered a warm statement of the dark opening theme, making room for the soloist to enter with his own echoing of the initial subject and its following exposition. And then it was off to the races as pianist and orchestra dueled through the enormous central development before the pianist made the massive recapitulation statement.

The slow movement was warmer and more lyrical, with the tone of Mr. Lugansky's Steinway delicate and even pensive. One was reminded of this work's origin in Brahms' friendship with Clara Schumann and his support for the pianist as her husband was committed to an asylum in 1854. A new energy and determination burst forth in the finale, with Mr. Lugansky demonstrating strength and control in the signature staccato theme.

The best moment of the performance came in this movement, with a transparent and lovely fugue for the strings, starting in the violins and moving in a circuit around the orchestra. The taut control and experience of the Russian players and their utter confidence in their longtime chief came through here. Following the applause, Mr. Lugansky obliged listeners with a brief and lyric encore, the first from from Felix Mendelssohn's Op. 62 Songs Without Words.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony following the attack on his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in an article published in PRAVDA. The Fifth is cut from some of the same melodic cloth as the composer's withdrawn Fourth Symphony, tailored here into an aesthetically pleasing four movements with traditional tempo markings and cut in a conservative compositional style. Is it a statement of submission to authority? Of subversion through music? Or relentless, "socialist realism" expressed as mindless orchestral optimism in the service of the Soviet state?

Mr. Temirkanov and his forces chose that last option, presenting a performance that followed the music strictly but left out the troubling subtext of the work. Strings crashed and broke like an incoming tide. Horns and heavy brass rode these oceans of sound, delivering a bold and supercharged interpretation. The short dance movement looked to Shostakovich's Mahlerian inspiration, showing the plight of the common man through the simplest instrumental means.

The slow third movement was frozen and contemplative, the icy surface of the music an effective veil for bitter tears, carefully held back by Mr. Temirkanov. This movement is closest in spirit to the then-hidden Fourth. The relentless finale banished any thoughts of rebellion, as the dark tonality was yanked into a bright D Major through a (deliberately?) unconventional transition to the blazing finish. The Symphony was followed by one last encore: the Amoroso from Prokofiev's epic-length ballet score Cinderella.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats