Manchester was very fortunate this week to host three fine orchestras: the Orchestre Nationale du Capitole de Toulouse did a wonderful job of Berlioz on Tuesday and the CBSO gave a towering Sibelius 2 on Thursday. Tonight, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic played a breathtaking concert to a packed hall in the final performance of their UK tour.

Yuri Temirkanov
Yuri Temirkanov

The evening opened with Prokofiev’s popular Symphony no. 1, ‘Classical’, in which Yuri Temirkanov immediately showed his distinctive style. Conducting without baton, his swinging, diving and slapping gestures shaped an intricately detailed performance. The string section gave impressively tight staccato throughout, at times with bows tapping almost imperceptibly on strings. No line in the symphony was left unattended, and yet the whole thing was thoroughly musical. At the other end of the spectrum, the violins’ legato playing was superb all evening. They took enormous care with the opening of the second movement, the leader of the orchestra leaning back and gazing around the hall, and the feather-light Gavotta brought a few chuckles from the audience. The finale galloped along at a heady pace, though never at the expense of expression – the woodwind in particular were chirpy and clear in their semiquavers – making for an excellent opener.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 was initially received as badly as the Prokofiev was positively. It was not until Hans von Bülow gave his support to it that it flourished. Tonight Dmitri Alexeev gave an astonishingly powerful performance, thundering from the opening ascending chords to an impossibly athletic and powerful close in the first movement. In the first solo passage he demonstrated his ability to find new angles on the music, resisting common practice and inserting subtle changes of dynamic here and there. He then found a beautifully tender lyricism in the pastoral themes of the second movement, before attacking the third with energetic vigour. The orchestra showed their quality too – the opening melody was gloriously long of phrase, the strings smoothly rounded and seeming almost to hold back respectfully from fully attacking the ‘big tune’ at its first appearance. Temirkanov held the second movement to a reconciliatory calm, aided by a hauntingly fresh flute solo and songful oboe. In the third movement, the violins were again gentle with their first treatment of the famous melody. They were then excellent in tight ensemble with woodwind and piano in the aggressive semiquaver passages, before Alexeev’s thundering cadenza, equalling the timpani at the top of the preceding crescendo. The realisation of the movement’s central melody was magnificent, capping a superb performance.

Shostakovich composed his Symphony no. 5 under immense pressure: his Lady Macbeth opera and Fourth Symphony had recently been denounced by Stalin, leading to the titling of the Fifth as ‘A Soviet artist’s practical, creative reply to just criticism’ in order to appease the authorities. The finale of the symphony has been debated for many years – is its emphatic, major-key ending truly triumphant, or is it a subtly ironic statement against Stalinist terror?

Again, Temirkanov struck a fine balance between close attention to detail and maintaining long structure. The orchestra were hugely powerful throughout, from visceral beginnings in the lower strings to climatic conclusion. The players seemed to take great enjoyment from the music, relishing in crescendos with a flourish. There was no sense of overblowing, and the string section worked especially well in unison. There were excellent solos, too, from principal horn and (several) from first flute. The third movement was a beautifully poignant lament, various sections wandering in melody, unsettled and uneasy. The violins’ shimmering tremolos, barely a whisper of sound, led towards the warmest major chords one could hope for to close the movement, even at their pianissimo dynamic. The contrast into the fourth movement was stark, as timpani and brass gave way to furious tutti. The lower brass mastered their rapid passages with ease, interacting well with the strings. Another excellent horn solo followed, floating above restless violins, before the menacing re-entry of the side drum heralded the recap. An almighty crescendo led to desperately forceful playing from all sections and a conclusion of supreme intensity.

So well received was the symphony that Temirkanov returned to the stage for two encores, amidst some ten bows. The first was an almost shockingly affecting ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, followed by the same composer’s Salut d’Amour. The first of these encores in particular was incredibly moving, partly given the nature of what had just been played, but also for the beauty and generous warmth of the string playing in the Elgar itself. This was a truly astounding evening.

*****