Temirkanov leads St. Petersburg Philharmonic in high-powered concert at Strathmore

St. Petersburg Philharmonic
The Baltimore Sun

By Tim Smith

It was one of those deja-vu-all-over-again moments when Yuri Temirkanov walked onstage at Strathmore Tuesday night.

Just seeing that aristocratic bearing and thin smile brought back memories of those few, downright glorious seasons filled with intensely involving music-making when he was at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. 

For Tuesday's event, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, Temirkanov was appearing with the St. Petersburg  Philharmonic, his main artistic focus since 1988.

I still remember when he brought that orchestra to the BSO's home turf for a performance a Meyerhoff Hall fairly early into his Baltimore tenure. A lot of BSO players attended and, on the way out afterward, I bumped into one of them, who, looking almost shell-shocked, turned and said: "So that's how he wants us to play."

Temirkanov didn't really try fashioning the BSO into a copy of the St. Petersburg ensemble, but he did want to summon the richest possible tone and the deepest, most soulful phrasing he could. That he succeeded on many occasions is why a lot of us will always retain such fond recollections of his time here.

But enough of the sentiment. On with the review.

Tuesday's concert found Temirkanov in typically high-voltage form. He turned the curtain-raiser, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter" Overture into a real barn-burner, a one-act drama of terrific intensity and color. The orchestra gave him thunderous fortissimos that never turned vulgar and handled the fastest passages with remarkable finesse.

The Russian mood continued with ...

Shostakovich's eventful Cello Concerto No. 1, the sort of music Temirkanov knows intimately from the inside. His guiding hand on the podium ensured that each orchestral detail was carefully molded as he provided ever-supple partnering for the soloist, Ailsa Weilerstein.

She offered fierce intensity in the outer movements. In the heart of the concerto, the pensive Moderato and extended Cadenza, Weilerstein achieved richly eloquent results, burrowing far beneath the black and white of the score. It was an absorbing performance.

The Philharmonic's contributions, including vivid horn solos, likewise proved stellar.

The evening's second half was devoted to Brahms' Fourth. Temirkanov has a particular affinity for the muscular side of the composer's romanticism. He likes to rev up the engine and pump up the volume, as he did here in the last two movements to riveting effect.

Earlier, Temirkanov's distinctive way of adding a tiny pause between the first and second plaintive notes of the opening movement paid poetic dividends (it subtly accentuated the sighing quality of the main theme), while his ability to draw an extra layer of sonic darkness from the orchestra emphasized the dark clouds behind the Andante.

If you tried hard, you could detect a premature entrance from a string player here, a brass player there; maybe even a slightly smudgy patch of articulation within one section of the orchestra or another. But that would require some fierce nit-picking in light of so much technically polished, expressively vibrant playing from a clearly inspired Philharmonic.

I noticed several new faces, many of then young, in the ensemble since the last time I heard it. That may account for some of the vitality emanating from the stage, but the power source was clearly Temirkanov, whose baton-less hands continue to communicate in inimitable ways and whose ability to get musicians to deliver edge-of-their-seat music-making remains wonderful to behold.

The whole evening was vintage Temirkanov,right down to the sublime encore -- "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma Variations," which he used on BSO tours, too. This conductor may not surprise you often with repertoire choices, but, it seems, he is as capable as ever of shaking you up by giving familiar fare fresh impact.

Incidentally, in case you missed it, I did an interview with Temirkanov for last Sunday's Sun. He had some interesting things to say, I think. Prior to press time, I was not successful in getting anyone in the BSO to respond to a question about the chances of the orchestra's music director emeritus returning for a guest slot in the future. But I heard that a BSO official was at Tuesday's concert, so maybe the subject was raised backstage.