On March 22, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by its artistic director, Yuri Temirkanov, visited Disney Hall and performed works by two Russian composers, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36 by Rimsky-Korsakov and the Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107 by Shostakovich with cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and the Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Brahms.
The members of the orchestra all walked on stage at the same time, in perfect German style, followed shortly thereafter by Maestro Temirkanov, to begin the performance of the Russian Easter Festival Overture, a piece not often heard in the concert hall, at least in this country. Conducting without a baton, which he did for all three works, Temirkanov led the orchestra in a performance of the Overture that vacillated between solemn and joyous. Any orchestral work by Rimsky-Korsakov demonstrates his superior facility at orchestration, and the Russian Easter Overture is no exception, which also means that individual soloists (e.g., the principal violinist and trombonist, etc.) could show off their talents. The piece can sometimes sound disjointed, punctuated as it is by pauses between the different sections, but hearing it performed by an all-Russian crowd gave it an air of genuineness.
After a short break for the orchestra to downsize and for the stage to be set up for Weilerstein, she and Maestro Temirkanov entered for a riveting performance of the very serious and dark Cello Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich. This concerto, written fairly late in the composer’s life (1959; he died in 1975) is very different from both of his piano concertos, which are lighter and more melodic.
There is also a prominent role for the only horn (and brass instrument for that matter), especially in the first movement, in which there is a brief duet with the cello, and the second movement.
Weilerstein, making a return appearance at Disney Hall, dug deep for this performance of a piece that is challenging for the cello and for the audience alike, especially the lengthy slow movement with its difficult cadenza. There is a section where the cello is accompanied by the celesta that provides the same kind of eerie, otherworldly sound that Shostakovich used in the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony. By mastering not only the music but also the feeling of this concerto written by a mature composer late in his life, Weilerstein showed why she is a phenomenon at such a young age. And Temirkanov held the orchestra back in just the right places so that even those audience members who were not seated in the front could hear her playing. At its conclusion, Temirkanov refused to take a bow with Weilerstein and, except for asking the horn player to stand, stood to the side and applauded her.
The concert concluded with a performance of one of the orchestral warhorses, the Symphony No. 4 by Brahms. However, Temirkanov’s rendition was the least impressive of the evening. First of all, the orchestra sounded muddled. I’ve heard others complain about some conductors and orchestras not figuring out the acoustic subtleties of Disney Hall, and I think this may have been one problem. The other problem was that the horns were barely audible, the exact opposite problem that the LA Phil has with their brass section in the hall.
Temirkanov put a slight hesitation on the transition from the first two notes (B to the G) of the first movement (Allegro non troppo, fast but not too fast) suggesting a slower, more deliberate tempo, but instead he took off in the opposite direction speeding things up, which he did again in the third movement, giving this symphony, which begs for every note to be savored, the feeling of being rushed. It will be interesting to see what Dudamel does with the symphony when he conducts it later this spring with the LA Phil.
Although the Brahms was a bit disappointing, it was still the Brahms Fourth in Disney Hall performed by a world-class orchestra. Plus, it was a treat to hear the oldest Russian orchestra perform two works by Russian composers.
Without waiting for the calls of “Encore!,” Temirkanov and his band performed one anyway, the Nimrod variation (Adagio) from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, an interesting choice, especially since it is often played at funerals.