Temirkanov’s appearance at Strathmore reminds Washington of what it’s missing

Alisa Weilerstein, St. Petersburg Philharmonic
The Washington Post

By Joe Banno

Yuri Temirkanov is sorely missed. The veteran maestro, who still ranks as one of the world’s most insightful and compelling podium presences, used to be a regular visitor to the Washington area when he helmed the Baltimore Symphony. His Strathmore Hall appearance Tuesday with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic reminded us how cherishable his now-rarer appearances have become.

Temirkanov has been artistic director and chief conductor of the Philharmonic since 1988 (and had been conducting them since 1967, when the legendary Yevgeny Mravinsky was his mentor). That long familiarity with his players was evident throughout Tuesday’s program — not least in the way that Temirkanov could be physically still for stretches of time, letting the orchestra do their work, and then conduct them (without a baton) using gestures that swept or carved the air, or teased minute bits of affectionate phrasing from them. But it’s what he was able to bring to a set of warhorse scores that made the music-making truly special. Right from the opening measures of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture,” his refusal to hurry the music along, his way of subtly blending wind and stringlines, his use of the rests to create evocative silences that hung in the air, all contributed to an interpretation that made the music sound richer and more meaningful than perhaps it is.

Likewise, he approached the great, if over-familiar, Brahms Fourth Symphony in a way that made us hear it afresh. This was a muscular, forward-moving, astutely proportioned reading, but one that was also deeply felt and beautiful as sheer sound. There were echoes of Otto Klemperer’s classic performances of the piece in the way that the music sounded as if it had been hewn from a slab of granite. But I was reminded, too, of Herbert von Karajan, in the plush, seamless legato Temirkanov drew from the strings: The violins still display some of that keen edge they possessed in the Soviet era, when this ensemble was known as the Leningrad Philharmonic, but they are also significantly sweeter and rounder of tone these days. There were countless felicities of phrasing along the way, not least from an eloquent group of windplayers. And, crucially, Temirkanov knows how to build climactic moments for maximum punch. Aided by his searing, robustly satisfying brass section, this was a performance of the Brahms that concluded with thrilling exuberance.

Shostakovich’s alternately wry, acerbic, sorrowful Cello Concerto No. 1 — premiered by this orchestra in 1959 — delivered its requisite punch in a keen orchestral reading, crowned by a magisterial performance by cellist Alisa Weilerstein. This score sounded as natural a fit for Weilerstein’s temperament as it did for an orchestra that has Shostakovich’s music in its DNA. She offered trenchancy and atmospherically gritty playing when called for but, just as tellingly, was able to delve probingly into the solo part’s deep and troubled vein of introspection. Indeed, like Temirkanov, this is a musician who understands the value of fraught silence.

As if this program weren’t bounty enough, an encore of the “Nimrod” movement from Elgar’s Enigma Variations topped the rest with a welling-up of gorgeous string tone and burnished brass that Temirkanov sculpted into a performance as heartfelt and moving as any I’ve ever heard.