Milanese feathers and finery greeted Yuri Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra to kick off the ninth edition of MITO Settembre Musica at Teatro alla Scala. A program of robust, romantic, fourth symphonies by Felix Mendelssohn and Anton Bruckner highlighted Temirkanov's mix of Italian sense and Russian sensibility with the St Petersburg Philharmonic, where the decorated conductor has led Russia’s oldest philharmonic orchestra as its artistic director and chief conductor for almost 30 years.

Yuri Temirkanov © Sasha Gusov
Yuri Temirkanov
© Sasha Gusov

MITO – the annual, early fall music festival backed by big industry sponsors and patronage icons such as Pierre Boulez, Umberto Eco and Renzo Piano – is a portmanteau of its northern Italian host cities, Milano and Torino, where the multi-genre festival bridges domestic talent with international guest conductors and orchestras.

This year's program, which runs from September 5 to 24, hosts Diego Matheuz and the Teatro La Fenice orchestra and choir; Daniel Harding and the Filarmonica della Scala; and Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, among others. Riding on attendance and ticket sales upswings from last year’s edition, the September music festival deigned international headliners to lure the tourist outflow from Milano Expo 2015, the universal exposition that runs through October.

Under Temirkanov’s trademark, batonless style – gesture was simply a tickle of fingers or a flick of an eyebrow – Italian landscape colors were respectfully subdued to perfection over intuitive tempi. Romantic tantrums and robust narratives were reined-in with woodsy, velvety subtleties.

First up was Mendelssohn's scenic Symphony no. 4, the "Italian" from 1833, a score imbued with local landscapes, colors and customs witnessed as the young German composer traveled from north to south Italy three years prior. The romantic symphony, full of youthful exuberance, is balanced across four self-possessed, tumultuous movements.

Temirkanov's elegant interpretation was a study in restraint, rationed in Russian sensibility. The first movement’s tempestuous impulses bristled beneath the surface, which transitioned to an economy of dignified expression in the second movement. French horn and bassoon bleats of the third movement trio were colorful but unassuming under tempered measures. For the fourth movement, driven by a breakneck tempo, flutes momentarily lagged during the explosive saltarello rhythms.

In Bruckner's Symphony no. 4, the "Romantic" (1887 - 89), the Austrian composer’s mature triumph was revised over the years to its fourth and final version, and elevated him to prominence through its charming motives and counterpoints. The first movement's poetic historical narratives – a medieval city echoing trumpets, knights in shining armor and white stallions flitting over birdsongs – was expressive, but cooled over with an introversive edge. Even at the most potent moments, there was restraint.

The second movement’s prayer and serenata were punctuated with small, even-keeled flourishes of tremolo strings over unrushed tempos. The third moment scherzo counterpoints were tightly wound with bright brass, while the fourth movement, with its big bursts of sound, was more solemn than grand.

Under Temirkanov’s elegant musicianship, sensibility and intimacy was valued over riotous color and immense sound.