The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées invited Yuri Temirkanov’s Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra to celebrate Beethoven and the Napoleonic wars in a heroic program: the Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major “Emperor” and the Symphony no. 3 in E flat major “Eroica”.

Yuri Temirkanov © Sasha Gusov
Yuri Temirkanov
© Sasha Gusov

The reason why this nickname was attached to the concerto was never established: composition having begun in 1809, during the battle of Wagram, the work might refer to the winning emperor (Napoleon) or to the composer’s champion (the Austrian emperor Franz) but its title was given by someone other than the composer, who dedicated his fifth concerto to Archduke Rudolf, his pupil and friend. Concerning the symphony, we all know the story – Beethoven wanted to dedicate it to Bonaparte, heir of the French Revolution, before the young Consul took the crown and began to threaten Europe. The disappointed composer crossed out the tyrant’s name and put “Sinfonia Eroica” instead, “to celebrate the memory of a great man”.

There was obviously some trouble at the Théâtre that night and we learnt at 8 o’clock that the program would be inverted – far more logically, the concerto would be played before the symphony. In a babel of noise, following the orchestra and its conductor, the star of the concert appeared: Nikolai Lugansky. Right from the beginning of the concerto, he showcased an energetic, mighty, and precise touch; his confidence was unmatched by a tentative orchestra, even the opening chords falling out of sync. The accompaniment lacked nuances throughout the first movement, with dynamics staying resolutely between forte and mezzoforte. Fortunately, Lugansky gave a wonderful performance, one which, though perhaps lacking romanticism and sweetness, had totally convincing vigour, strength, and accuracy. The second movement gave him the opportunity to show a great sensitivity, aided by a wonderful string section. Lugansky evoked perfectly this movement's tender yet spacious sound world: delicate pianos, sweet crescendos, fine touch and pure German romanticism. The third movement, however, showed little evidence of such mastery and suffered more from poor rapport between soloist and orchestra. Lost, it seemed, was enthusiasm and with it the audience’s concentration, explicable perhaps in part by some trouble in the hall (a medical emergency), but mainly by the lack of nuances in Temirkanov’s interpretation. Old-fashioned and heavy, this reading better described an old, fat emperor, slumped on his throne; quite unlike Lugansky’s confident knight, winning heroic battles and beautiful princesses left and right. In the brilliant last cadenza, though, Nikolai Lugansky’s delicate touch and the orchestra’s robust response finally saw the young hero triumphant.

It was the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées’s second Eroica of the month, after the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris three weeks previously. Far from the OCP’s reduced ensemble, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic played with around 70 strings (against 14 mandatory winds) and Yuri Temirkanov’s Eroica was a quite different beast, not lean but grand and heroic. Lacking nuance, the long first movement sprawled to excess but offered a good vision of the communication within the orchestra, especially among the strings, capable of producing truly impressive swells of sound. The funereal second movement highlighted further the might of the strings, responding well to the march's tragic intensity – for instance, Temirkanov’s decision to showcase the double basses' appoggiaturas in the very beginning gave the texture a heavy, dark underpinning. The march reached a shattering climax in the central fugato, taking advantage of the high number of strings: the basses’ entry seemed to make the earth shake. Temirkanov maintained this intensity until the last note of the movement, a perfect contrast with the wild, staggering Scherzo. Balanced always between delicacy and violence, this movement gave individual sections a chance to shine, particularly some impeccable horns in the Trio. Although less inventive and certainly old-fashioned, the Finale was undeniably heroic, thanks to almost dangerously fast tempi and a real majesty of sound.

Well-served by a large string section and brilliant performances all round, the symphony aroused thunderous applause, despite some weaknesses in the first and last movements. One usually expects rather more original interpretations at the Théâtre, but such strength and power is rare from French orchestras. This was an Eroica flying the flag for the power of early 19th-century music, contending easily with the most overblown of the post-romantic symphonies.

Finally, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic relaxed from the concert’s extroverted heroism with Schubert’s third Moment Musical played by the strings, a change the audience clearly appreciated.