After an all-Russian programme the previous night (barring one encore), the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra decided to mix home and away repertoire in their second Proms outing at the Royal Albert Hall. Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky were joined by Elgar, and the orchestra were joined by violinist Julia Fischer for Tchaikovsky’s great Violin Concerto.

Julia Fischer © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Julia Fischer
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou
The choice of selections from The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh by Rimsky-Korsakov had an air of time-filling, particularly as only three of the four symphonic pictures were performed. They were also out of order, although the crisp opening of the Wedding Procession made some sense of this, as the orchestra somehow respond to Yuri Temirkanov’s initially near-motionless conducting with a cheery nimbleness. Gradually Temirkanov warmed-up, scooping the music up to give to them as the movement progressed. There were a few turns that weren’t quite as expertly navigated as they might have been; the first violins in particular seemed to struggle with the pace. There was, however, enough colour to sustain interest, with real menace in the lead-up to the Battle of the Kerzhenets. The Prelude had a dark, lugubrious mood in contrast with the bounce of the Wedding Procession, with excellent solos from the woodwind section. The influence of Wagner was hinted at, but not overstated as the movement came to a close.

The technical challenges of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto are well known; Julia Fischer made light work of them all, with such an easy grace that it is not hard to believe she has been performing the work since she was a teenager. And yet her performance was fresh, bringing a lyrical quality to even the fastest passages. Her intonation was near-flawless; it would be hard to find such a similar quality outside of the recording studio. Her rapport with Temirkanov was obvious, although they weren’t always able to carry the orchestra along with them. The first violins again wanted a lot of attention, and felt a bit underfed in places. If they were trying to ensure a good balance of sound between them and Fischer, they needn’t have worried, as she sang out, even in her most delicate moments in the Canzonetta. When they were in full voice, the orchestra had great power, and Temirkanov had chosen his tempi wisely, producing a performance that was agile rather than frenetic.

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

From the opening bars of C.A.E, the first of the Enigma Variations, it was clear that Temirkanov had a deep understanding of Elgar’s music, exquisitely bringing out the deep passion in the music without ever tipping over unto indulgence. At times I did wonder whether Temirkanov had a pressing engagement elsewhere after the concert, as we whipped through variations at a lick. For the most part, this served to highlight the tasty morsels that each variation contains, becoming hasty only a couple of times, during R.P.A, and W.N, where the strings weren’t given enough time to expand into the sound. The orchestra seemed in a rush to get to Nimrod which was a pity as W.N is a lovely variation; perhaps even underappreciated due to its positioning. Nimrod itself almost wavered at the beginning as the orchestra adjusted into a broader, warmer sound, but it was quickly righted, and built up to an exquisite climax. It was also great fun to hear the organ included in the finale, which had a tautness that kept the return of the various themes fresh, and made sure the overall sound was grand without being pompous; an almost perfectly-judged interpretation all round.

It turned out Temirkanov wasn’t in a hurry to leave after all, as we had two encores. The first was more Elgar, a well-defined Salut d’Amour; Temirkanov brought out connections with Enigma that I hadn’t heard before, and it had feeling without being saccharine.

Perhaps the second encore was an attempt to bring us back to Russia. However, fine though the Vivo from the Pulcinella Suite was, by the time it had finished the feelings from the elegantly-crafted Enigma had completely dispersed. A shame, as it had been something to savour; I left the Royal Albert Hall feeling over-full, when I could have been hungry for more.