St. Petersburg Philharmonic. A Program of High Notes

10.25.07
St. Petersburg Philharmonic
The Washington Post

Russia's oldest and most eminent orchestra, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, made a welcome visit to the Kennedy Center on Tuesday, in a comfortably mainstream program of Mozart, Beethoven and Prokofiev. The orchestra is both muscular and agile under Music Director Yuri Temirkanov, whose work we used to enjoy with the Baltimore Symphony. Although every name on the group's roster is Russian, it has a more international sound and has certainly expanded and refined its sonority since its Soviet-era recordings.

 For better or worse, they now sound not unlike a fine American orchestra such as the New York Philharmonic.

Temirkanov is not the martinet of his predecessor and mentor Yevgeny Mravinsky. Rather than beating time with minatory precision, he "paints" the larger phrases, trusting the players to attend to details. His manner is that of a tour guide calling attention to points of interest during a voyage, not a commander marshaling his troops.

In the "Marriage of Figaro" Overture, the strings were eerily quiet in the opening, the woodwinds laughed and sparkled, and the tutti scales at the end were as precise as anything the Cleveland Orchestra could have done.

Violinist Julia Fischer then joined the orchestra for a deft, silvery performance of the Beethoven Concerto. Fischer, still in her mid-20s, is a sort of German Hilary Hahn, with pinpoint accuracy, natural stage presence and golden-haired beauty. She does not have a lush, sybaritic sound, and never got the memo, apparently circulating these days, that slower equals more musical. Fischer harks back to such Apollonian violinists of yesteryear as Nathan Milstein and Arthur Grumiaux; she makes her points phrase by phrase, rather than note by note. Other than a slightly dry Larghetto, this was an almost ideal rendition of the piece, particularly so with Temirkanov's meticulous partnership, which both supported and impelled Fischer.

Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony is, of course, right in this orchestra's wheelhouse. Played with this level of familiarity and fervor, even the longueurs make an impression. Prokofiev's blocklike construction included some desultory sections, but these musicians made every bar persuasive. The strings tore into the virtuoso passages with masticating glee, and Temirkanov made sure the brass let them through. The symphony's strongest movement -- the Scherzo -- went especially well: the winds and percussion expertly creating the kaleidoscopic colors, and Temirkanov bringing out the comical toy soldiers in the first section and the Gershwin/Ravel saunter of the central part. This was outstanding musicmaking.