I’m not sure where Sinbad was sailing to in the St Petersburg Philharmonic’s Prom last night, but he sure wanted to get there in a hurry. A frenetic – and thrilling – performance of Scheherazade displayed just the impetuosity which was occasionally absent from the concert opener, Francesca da Rimini. In between, Nikolai Lugansky provided poetic Rachmaninov. Vivid storytelling in all three works in Yuri Temirkanov’s hands, but how far is the St Petersburg sound still Russian in accent?

Yuri Temirkanov © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Yuri Temirkanov
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Listen to recordings of the Leningrad Philharmonic (the orchestra’s Soviet title) under Evgeny Mravinsky – Temirkanov’s direct predecessor – and they produced a very distinctive sound. During Temirkanov’s tenure, which began in 1988, those characteristics have either been lost or blunted. Although the trombones give a satisfying rasp, that strident Soviet brass sound of old has softened. The dark, melancholy oboe timbre can only come from Russia, but other woodwinds have become homogenised. It’s as if Temirkanov has gradually sanded away the contours over the years to produce a smoother finish – this is still a classy orchestra capable of excellent playing, but now lacking some of the character it once possessed.

What has remained is the burnished mahogany string sound, heard terrifically in Francesca da Rimini, despite Temirkanov inflicting a cut early on, when the music is at its most storm-tossed. Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem is based on an episode from Dante’s Inferno, where Francesca’s adulterous affair with Paolo, her brother-in-law, is discovered by Gianciotto (her husband), who kills both lovers. Tchaikovsky composed passionate, doom-laden music and the St Petersburg double basses scrabbled and growled in fury. But this was a performance which, when wild abandon was required, just edged away from the precipice instead of hurling itself headlong into the abyss.

Rachmaninov also composed a Francesca da Rimini – a splendid operatic take on the tale – but it was one of the composer’s most familiar works on display here: the Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor. It still evokes memories of the film Brief Encounter, the audience giving an almost audible sigh of recognition when the expansive string theme starts up after the solo piano opening. Nikolai Lugansky paced those chords sensitively, an inexorable build up with a measured crescendo. His playing was rhapsodic, with plenty of rubato, but it never seemed as if he was pulling the line apart wilfully. Lugansky is, above all, an elegant pianist; there was no pounding at the keyboard here, but plenty of poetry and romance. Temirkanov proved an attentive partner, watching, listening, cueing carefully in broad sweeps of his batonless hands. More ruminative Rachmaninov followed in Lugansky’s encore, the G minor Étude-tableaux from the Op.33 set.

After the expansive nature of the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, Temirkanov’s highly theatrical way with Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic take on The Arabian Nights, came as a surprise. A bracing sea voyage for Sinbad left me breathless, as did leader Lev Klychkov’s urgent narration as Scheherazade weaves her tales to save her skin.

Given that Temirkanov had allowed his principal clarinet so much license in the love theme in Francesca, he was far stricter in Scheherazade. In the opening to “The Tale of the Kalendar Prince”, Rimsky-Korsakov has a sinuous bassoon solo over pedal notes from cellos and basses, where the score is marked ad lib. Most conductors stand back and allow the principal bassoonist space to inflect this oriental line. Temirkanov was having none if it, beating time and shaping the melody with his own hands.

The Young Princess rattled past – a Short Ride in a Fast Palanquin – all aglitter with percussion in the third movement. It was in the finale’s storm and shipwreck that Temirkanov’s impatient approach really paid dividends; an exhilarating tempest and the timpanist pounded out the splintering of the ship with relish. There had been a few blurred woodwind entries and smudged horn solos along the way, but this was a pulsating journey through a familiar work to leave you wondering afresh at its marvels.

And those St Petersburg strings were on lavish form in their first encore, the gorgeous Nutcracker pas de deux – the orchestra’s favourite calling card and one which I’ll never tire of hearing them play. Christmas just came early. 

****1