A Feast for a Sweet Tooth

St. Petersburg Philharmonic
The Sunday Times

Yuri Temirkanov has never knowingly undersold the emotional content of any music he conducts. So the prospect of this epitome of charisma interpreting an all-Rachmaninov programme sent a chill through the ascetic's heart. Do you spread honey on a crumpet that is already dripping with maple syrup? Oh all right, you do. But should you? 

Well, perhaps the tooth gets sweeter as the years go by, because I was absolutely transfixed from start to finish. the maestro did not put a finger wrong all night. His phrasing was beautifully expansive yet never indulgent; he let this luscious music breathe, swell and engage the senses, yet he kept up a stern, almost demonic drive where appropriate. And the latter probably brings us closer to the essence of the gloomy Rachmaninov. (Stravinsky's wonderful description is still unrivaled: "a six-and-a-half-foot scowl") than an emphasis on the celebrated fruitiness of the tunes.

Equally fine was the playing of the St Petersburg Philharmonic. OF all the world's top orchestras, this one compels something warmer than admiration: one feels a huge affection for is gloriously whole-hearted approach, and for maintaining its standards despite the adverse circumstances it faces at home. How an orchestra that ours abroad for so many weeks each year (out of hard-currency necessities) keeps its spirit and its technique intact is another miracle.

The string tone is big without being hard-driven; the winds have retained their Russian timbres despite all pressures to modernise; the brass has an exciting thrust that Temirkanov did not discourage. But what draws the most admiration is this orchestra's astonishing responsiveness. With a conductor they know well (Temirkanov is their music director) they will seize on an interpretation like tigers pouncing on prey. Other orchestras may occasionally err towards complacency; the Russians give the impression that they are playing for their next meal.

This, the first of three St Petersburg concerts on successive nights at the Barbican, marked the 50th anniversary of Rachmaninov's death with a well-calculated mixture of the well-trodden and the unfamiliar.  The pianist Dmitri Alexeev was in mercurial form for the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and the orchestral response was admirably balanced between the macabre and the rhapsodic. 

The Second Symphony was magnificently handled - what an underplayed masterpiece this is - and, for the connoisseurs, there was a rare dusting-down of The Rock, written when Rachmaninov was barely 20, clearly under Tchaikovsky's spell, and already displaying promising melancholic tendencies.