Under their Artistic Director and veteran Chief Conductor Yuri Temirkanov, the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra (formerly the Leningrad Philharmonic) gave an all-Russian programme last Friday at Basingstoke’s Anvil. Temirkanov has been at the helm of this distinguished orchestra for 25 years and perhaps this familiarity with the players prompted him to relinquish his baton for the evening.

Yuri Temirkanov © Sasha Gusov
Yuri Temirkanov
© Sasha Gusov

The concert opened with Anatoly Liadov’s little known symphonic poem Kikimora, an atmospheric work from 1909 that evokes an evil witch who lives in a mountain cave. Its orchestral palette includes cor anglais, celesta and, in this case, an over zealously played xylophone. Perhaps the composer’s death one hundred years ago in 1914 may have provided the main reason to showcase this eight-minute rarity but if the work is ever to become better known then conductor and orchestra need to achieve better dramatic tension and instrumental balance than was in evidence in this performance.

The St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra were then joined by the young, up and coming violinist Leticia Muñoz Moreno, winner of the 2012 ECHO Rising Stars Award, and making her Anvil debut as part of her first UK national tour. She played Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor, still relatively new to her as her music stand indicated, and first performed in 1935 in Madrid, shortly before the composer returned permanently to Russia. The concerto eminently suited the young Spanish soloist whose vigorous tone in the first movement, despite a somewhat uncertain start, matched Prokofiev’s directness of expression. Both Moreno and Temirkanov had a determinedly forthright approach that, despite the work’s fundamental lyricism, emphasised the movement’s sharp edges and emotional intensity. The soloist’s sweet tone also found a perfect partnership in the limpid beauty of the slow movement, with its striking opening pizzicato accompaniment. If the 50 or so string players threatened to overwhelm her will-o’-the-wisp figurations in the central panel her agility was never in question. The Valse macabre mood of the finale was well-served by soloist, conductor and orchestra, even if the passage where the bass drum marks time didn’t quite generate the excitement or humour that Prokofiev had intended.

After the interval there followed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor. It was here that Temirkanov had an individual approach to pace and balance, choosing what seemed to me a wilfully slow tempo for the famous second theme in the opening movement. He also chose to ignore the notoriously soft dynamics at the end of the exposition, and subsequently lost any impact arising from the explosive fortissimo that begins the development. The second movement was dispatched agreeably enough although the low D pedal in the central passage failed to create any sense of menace or doom. It was this movement that prompted the critic Edward Hanslick to comment (after the work’s premiere in 1895) on the “disagreeable rhythm” of 5/4, venturing to assert that 6/4 would be an improvement!

Where the third movement could have been a wonderfully memorable experience it turned out to be routine, its anticipated cumulative excitement marred by the orchestra’s tendency to play too loudly too soon. The finale was suitably tragic but the overall presentation of the work felt compromised and, at the end, produced only a single cheer from a nearly-full auditorium. For an encore the orchestra pulled out “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations and while this drew a more animated response, Temirkanov never quite managed to tame his players or persuade them to produce the degree of rapt intimacy needed for this much-loved work.