If among the world’s great concert halls there was one devoted entirely to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, the house band would be the St Petersburg Philharmonic. Ever since the former Leningrad Philharmonic premiered the composer’s Symphony no. 1 in 1926 – followed by world premières of five subsequent symphonies and three concertos – no orchestra has been more closely identified with him. Indeed, as long-time Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Yuri Temirkanov noted at a Prague Spring press conference that his ensemble is also known as the “Shostakovich Philharmonic”.

Yuri Temirkanov and Julian Rachlin © Sasha Gusov
Yuri Temirkanov and Julian Rachlin
© Sasha Gusov

The orchestra showed why in two performances over the first weekend of the festival, playing to a packed house both nights. The first was devoted entirely to the Seventh Symphony, Shostakovich’s exhilarating and terrifying account of the 1941 siege of Leningrad. The second opened with his Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, featuring soloist Julian Rachlin, and concluded with his Symphony no. 5 in D minor – both works originally premiered by the orchestra, in 1937 and 1955 respectively.

The Leningrad Symphony had been a revelation. Typically performed at high volume in blasts of aural fireworks, it was a study in restraint. Temirkanov fired up a few explosions, notably in the opening and closing movements. But much in between was preternaturally quiet, with even the insistent martial rhythm of the snare drum kept muted and distant – rather, one imagines, as the siege would have been for the city’s residents, a constant wartime background noise

With the volume down, a rich array of details and nuances emerged. The drone of air raids in the first movement was remarkably clear, almost mechanical in timbre. The succession of woodwind solos was breathtaking, with each player given room to breathe and show a brilliant blend of command and expression. The fine-tuned introductions and fade-outs of many sections, with Temirkanov taking the music from a whisper to a crashing wave and then back again, built a riveting atmosphere of suspense.

The conductor’s measured approach – and the orchestra’s long history with the piece – helped bring its intangible qualities to the fore. Hardship, heroism, determination and despair all flowed through the music, which had what can only be described as a deeply Russian soul. If a musical work ever reached across the decades with undiminished intensity from the time and circumstances of its creation, it was in this powerful rendering of a symphony that inspired the world. 

Julian Rachlin brought a similar intensity the following night, matching Temirkanov’s subdued, richly emotional sound to open the concerto. His craftsmanship and expert control remained consistent even through the impassioned cadenza of the third movement, which he attached with a fierce virtuosity. Just as impressive was the interplay between the violinist and the orchestra, split-second exchanges that sounded like they had been playing together for years. Give Temirkanov equal credit not only for that, but for a superb job of balancing the sound, with not a single note of Rachlin’s playing lost.

The conductor saved his biggest blasts for the closing symphony, which started at a deliberate pace reinforced by pregnant pauses, then blossomed into a relatively straightforward rendering of light melodies alternating with high-volume percussive outbursts. Temirkanov’s treatment of the first three movements was so thoughtful and finely drawn, the piece sounded like a tone poem at times. That gave the orchestra’s exemplary woodwind section a chance to shine again. And it added considerable impact to the finale, with its anguished optimism – “a joy enforced by threats” the composer called it – never clearer or more profound.

All three pieces came with encores. On the first night it was the “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and on the second a sampling of Schubert’s Moments musicaux, both of which gave the orchestra a chance to show its softer side. As for Rachlin, he showed incredible stamina in coming back from a 40-minute concerto with a fiery version of Ysaÿe’s Sonata no. 3.

In an odd turn, both concerts were briefly disturbed by an audience member passing out and receiving medical attention. In more than a decade of attending performances at Prague’s Municipal House, this reviewer has never witnessed a similar incident – much less two on successive nights. Were they a testimony to the power of the performances? It’s a fanciful thought, but when Temirkanov and his St Petersburg players are onstage, one thing is certain: Shostakovich’s music is not for the faint of heart.

*****