Much has been said over the years about the role of the conductor. In fact, there are probably as many books and articles on the subject as there are conductors to talk about. Yuri Temirkanov is an old hand at this, and also has a thing or two to say on the subject. He has had a long and distinguished career leading orchestras such as the Leningrad Symphony and the St Petersburg Philharmonic, as well as revitalising the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and is still going strong at the age of 77. Temirkanov is a firm believer in the conductor standing in the composer's shoes and trying to convey what he thinks the composer was trying to say rather than what the conductor wants to say. He suggested that the conductor has somehow to guess what the composer intended, rather like solving a detective story, and that not even Mahler could write down absolutely everything he wanted to say even though every measure made it clear how it was to be conducted.

Sergey Khachatryan © Marco Borggreve
Sergey Khachatryan
© Marco Borggreve

Temirkanov conducts without a baton, and communicates very effectively using his hands and his eyes, with subtle facial expressions and body movements adding to his armoury. Regal and evergreen, he approached the podium in this concert with decorum and a glint in his eye, and proceeded to coax out of the Philharmonia Orchestra a delightful performance of one of Glazunov's most popular works, his Concert Waltz for orchestra no. 2. While Glazunov's music can sometimes be hard to define, this piece showcases the composer's skill as a brilliant orchestrator. Temirkanov and the Philharmonia captured the wide variety of orchestral colour, opening with poise, grandeur and grace before turning to the whirling sophisticated waltz episodes. There was a nice balance across the orchestra with fluid winds and balletic strings, although it could have done with a little more light and shade to contrast some of the more extreme changes of dynamics and tempo.

The Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan has been continuing to grow in stature and impress audiences around the world, with many plaudits given for his concert performances but only a few recordings to his name. Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor has become a staple in Khachatryan's repertoire, and he gave a quite superb performance with Temirkanov and the Philharmonia in more than just a supporting role. Khachatryan showed tremendous versatility, playing with warmth and richness in the lower registers and sharpness and precision in the upper, but, more importantly, demonstrated perfect control over the variety of textures and complex layering of the music.

There were no histrionics here, just honest and intense playing, with genuine feeling. The handoffs between soloist and orchestra were perfectly judged, and Temirkanov commanded the Philharmonia brilliantly. Khachatryan was lyrical and expressive throughout, squeezing out all the impassioned sentiments of the first movement, the long lines in the second movement being beautifully shaped and controlled, and the technical mastery in the third movement avoiding virtuosity for its own sake and producing aggressively rhythmic jabbing. The Philharmonia was a perfect partner, showing equal measures of sensitivity and assertiveness and great mastery of the score. Apart from a very minor timing issue towards the end of the first movement, this was an immense and breathtaking performance. As an encore, Khachatryan in reflective mood played the opening Adagio from Bach's Sonata No. 1 in G minor BWV 1001.  

After the interval, Temirnakov was back on home territory as he steered the Philharmonia masterfully through Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 5 in E minor, dominated by the composer's "complete resignation before fate". Both conductor and orchestra had fire in their bellies in a vibrant and passionate performance of this much-loved symphony. The warmth and incisiveness of the Philharmonia strings pervaded the piece, with crisp and erudite winds and resplendent brass. The piece was wonderfully shaped, Temirkanov's hands constantly carving gestures through the air to give the orchestra his fine-tuning direction. Crescendos and decrescendos meandered in and out, changes of pace and mood were judged just right, and there was a healthy peppering of feathery lightness.

The tuttis were completely on the money, with never a moment where anything felt too turgid or overblown. The outer movements were dynamic and forceful but with Temirnakov also accentuating the gentler lyrical side of Tchaikovsky. The wonderful horn solo in the second movement was slightly shaky but heart-warming nevertheless, and the epic climaxes brimmed with emotion and passion. The deliciously lilting waltz of the third movement was crafted expertly, with jaunty bassoon and winds interspersed with flighty strings. Temirkanov drove the music of the fourth movement through its march-like journey with ferocity and skittishness, as the orchestra maintained pace, momentum and tension leading ultimately to an exhilarating and triumphant climax as Tchaikovsky finally overcomes fate.

****1