“Never look encouragingly at the brass,” was one of Richard Strauss’ conducting commandments. Yuri Temirkanov took this maxim to heart, barely looking at any members of his St Petersburg Philharmonic during an absorbing account of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 10 in E minor. Head buried in his score, he cued in various sections and solos with barely a glance, if at all, in the right direction. Such is the rapport between conductor and orchestra – he has been its Principal Conductor since 1988 – that it mattered not a jot.

Yuri Temirkanov © Sasha Gusov
Yuri Temirkanov
© Sasha Gusov

Temirkanov is a natural showman. He knows how to play an audience and his charm was in evidence from the off. Now white-haired, but still sprightly, he arrived at the podium to discover a stool resting there. Good-natured mime followed in which he passed the stool to the leader, making it clear he had no intention of sitting on the job. Conducting without a baton, he shaped and moulded the music with his hands. Kikimora, Lyadov’s miniature fairy-tale portraying a flax-spinning witch, concluded with Temirkanov, with half an eye on the audience, tweaking his left hand aloft as the witch disappeared into the night with a last piccolo wisp.

Shostakovich provided more serious business. The orchestra claims a special heritage to the symphony. Under its previous title The Leningrad Philharmonic, it premiered the Tenth in December 1953, conducted by Temirkanov’s immediate predecessor, Evgeny Mravinsky. It’s tempting to consider that Temirkanov would have learnt much of his Shostakovich from Mravinsky directly, though their approaches – both to the work and to conducting style – differ. Mravinsky’s Shostakovich was often ferocious, allied to a technique that paired minimal gestures with a steely glare that could wither a player at 20 paces. Temirkanov, avuncular, also eschews dramatic gestures, but the eye contact was rarely there, so embedded was he in the score. His Shostakovich contained plenty of drama, but was more reined in, less hysterical than a typical Mravinsky account.

The massed strings of the St Petersburg Philharmonic launched the symphony with great sonority. Inky clarinets, oily bassoons and a wonderfully neurotic oboe (bell often raised) contributed to the woodwind choir in the midst of the first movement Moderato. A pair of piccolos slithered around each other, creating an edgy sense of foreboding at the movement’s conclusion. Fierce violence was unleashed in the Scherzo, said to depict Stalin who had died earlier in 1953. Temirkanov took the third movement at a livelier pace than normal, steely pizzicatos much in evidence, while the finale was dispatched with élan, the composer’s triumphant ‘DSCH’ motif winning the day. It was regrettable that the brass players weren’t on risers, slightly limiting their impact. This was especially the case in the third movement, where Igor Karzov’s magnificent horn solo (the ‘Elmira’ theme – a coded reference to Shostakovich’s pupil Elmira Nazirova) deserved not to be obscured behind the violas. Temirkanov, despite avoiding eye contact during the symphony itself, clearly valued his playing, passing his bouquet to Karzov during the ovation which followed.

There has been a veritable St Petersburg invasion of the UK this week, with both the St Petersburg Philharmonic and the Mariinsky Opera criss-crossing the country in a hectic schedule. Where the Mariinsky has played a different opera every night, the Philharmonic has alternated two programmes. But whereas Leticia Muñoz Moreno has performed Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto on the rest of the tour, star violinist Maxim Vengerov was engaged for this London one. I’m not convinced London got the best deal. Whilst there is no denying the fabulously rich, mahogany depths of Vengerov’s violin tone, his account of the concerto was indulgent, pulling tempi around and applying dubious lashings of portamento schmaltz. The Canzonetta middle movement was a luxuriant warm bath, but again with exaggerated dynamics, plus some less than perfect intonation.

Temirkanov drew some lovely woodwind exchanges in the final movement, following Vengerov perfectly in the Cossack dance finale, which frisked and stamped exuberantly. “When you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, double the pace,” was another of Strauss’ tenets. Given the boisterous way the concerto ended and the Shostakovich scherzo in the second half, I think Temirkanov would have been Strauss’ sort of conductor.

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