After hearing three exhilarating and razor-sharp Philharmonia Orchestra concerts this season under Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and new Guest Principal Jakub Hrůša, both of whom conduct in a very precise, detailed and clear way, this performance with their regular guest conductor Yuri Temirkanov felt rather leisurely and decidedly “Old School”. I hasten to add that this in itself not a bad thing and a large part of the audience was obviously enjoying this programme of two Mozart works and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

Yuri Temirkanov © Sasha Gusov
Yuri Temirkanov
© Sasha Gusov

The concert began amiably enough with a lively, if unremarkable, performance of Mozart’s Figaro overture. Temirkanov, conducting without a baton, waved his hands around vaguely to move the music along, and the musicians seemed happy to go with the flow. The tempo was unhurried (not breakneck speed à la period-influenced conductors) and modern trumpets and timpani were used, but there was a genial atmosphere and the players seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21 in C major was the respected Georgian pianist Eliso Virsaladze, on a rare visit to these shores. Her Mozart was “Old School” in the best sense of the word: warm and bright-toned, clear and disciplined, if a little austere, and her tone had a strength which was produced from the weight from her shoulders in the Russian style. She articulated the phrases beautifully, often not totally legato but separating the notes, and it was a pity that the orchestra didn’t always take her cue and give it the same lively phrasing when they took over the same melody. It is such details that can elevate the performance from an average to a memorable one.

Virsaladze showed beautifully controlled passagework in the first movement, in particular bringing out the dark harmonic modulations in the development section. The second movement was on the slower side of Andante, but Virsaladze maintained the long line of the melody (played without any sentimentality) and kept the forward momentum. In the finale, the solo piano led all the way with crisp and lively playing. In contrast, the orchestra seemed a little lagging at times, and there could have been a little more alertness and a tighter ensemble, especially from the woodwinds. Perhaps it’s just me, but in an age when we are used to pianists directing from the keyboard with responsive chamber orchestras, Temirkanov’s approach seemed like passive “accompaniment” and it didn’t give me a full experience the work.

Things heated up a little more in Scheherazade, a work Temirkanov must know inside out. After a majestic introduction, leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay entered gracefully with his solo, representing Scheherazade herself. Throughout the piece, his solos were beautifully rendered with a delicate tone and technical finesse, and accompanied by swishing arpeggios on the harp (Heidi Krutzen). In the main section, the rocking cello figures that rise and fall like waves on the ocean felt slightly heavy, as if Sinbad’s ship was having a choppy voyage. Some of this choppiness may have resulted in a difference of Temirkanov’s tempo and the orchestra’s, because Temirkanov has the tendency to slow down every time he tries to emphasize a phrase.

The second movement, depicting Prince Kalendar’s adventures, displayed spirited playing by the wind principals of the Philharmonia, beginning with the bassoon (Robin O’Neill), then oboe (Tom Blomfelt), clarinet (Mark van de Wiel) and flute (guest principal Charli Ashton), and there was considerable excitement in the jaunty scherzando section. This was followed by rich and sonorous string playing in the third movement. The performance reached its highlight in the fourth movement where everything came together with the powerful brass and the percussion adding lots of exotic colour and brilliance. If it didn’t have quite the ease and fluidity of Temirkanov’s performance with his own orchestra, it was still an energetic performance.

As a post-script, I would like to add that the free pre-concert performance by orchestral members of Arensky's rarely-heard String Quartet no. 2 (scored for violin, viola and 2 cellos!) was ravishing and a real discovery for me.