Finding the Soul of Russia Everywhere

04.15.11
Nikolai Lugansky, St. Petersburg Philharmonic
New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

Did you know that the sighing first theme of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony is actually a Russian folk song? Or that the mellow chorale played by the woodwinds at the beginning of the slow second movement is obviously inspired by a Russian Orthodox male choir?

None of this is true, of course. But on Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, in the second of two programs, Yuri Temirkanov conducted the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in a fresh, intriguing performance of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony that had this Germanic music sounding somehow Russian. We are supposedly living in an era in which the world is getting smaller, and distinctive national characteristics of orchestras are becoming homogenized into an international style. But Russian orchestras have clung more strongly to their roots, and to the characteristic Russian sound that favors dark colorings, mellow brass, reedy woodwinds and weighty textures; particularly this Russian orchestra, founded in 1882.

This impression was reinforced by the programs chosen by Mr. Temirkanov, the artistic director and principal conductor of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic for 23 years. Of six pieces on the two programs, the Brahms was the only non-Russian work.

Wednesday’s concert began with “Kikimora,” a seven-minute tone poem by Anatoli Liadov, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. In the bizarre Russian fairy tale depicted here, Kikimora is a witch raised from infancy by a magician, who regales her with stories while rocking her in a crystal cradle. At 7, the witch is still the size of a thimble, yet already plotting evil for the world.

The sound of the murmuring low brass chords that began this performance seemed not to be coming from the stage but seeping up through the floorboards under the seats. After an atmospheric episode, the piece broke into a spiraling dance, sometimes crazed, sometimes delicate with gossamer textures. Why this 1909 tone poem is not as popular as Dukas’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” I cannot imagine.

The major works on Wednesday’s program were Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” By offering these two repertory staples, Mr. Temirkanov raised the stakes here: a real Russian orchestra was going to show us all how this music should be played. And show us they did.

The virtuoso Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky was the impressive soloist in the Rachmaninoff. Mr. Lugansky, true to the Russian Romantic heritage, plays with a plush sound and plenty of impetuosity. But, born to two scientists, he is also an analytic musician. In the opening of the concerto, which begins with a series of ominous chords that grow in sound and intensity, Mr. Lugansky voiced each one to highlight harmonic intricacies. And when the surging main theme broke out in the orchestra, he brought penetrating sound and sweep to the rippling piano arpeggios that accompany the melody.

Throughout this piece, with Mr. Temirkanov drawing elemental sound from the ensemble, Mr. Lugansky brought clarity, power and flair to his playing. But it was in the most subdued passages that his performance especially touched me, like the opening of the slow movement, when he shaped the simple pattern of notes that accompany a mournful solo clarinet into an undulant harmonic ripple.

“Scheherazade” depicts some of the nightly stories that the alluring Scheherazade tells her husband, an avenging sultan who considers each of his wives false. In this performance, rather than striving to capture the exotic qualities of the music or summoning veiled sounds and hazy textures, Mr. Temirkanov and his players told stories in music. Everything was direct, vivid and full of character. The rocking orchestral figure that fortifies the opening theme of “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” evoked not lapping waves but oceanic turbulence. When the ship is wrecked in the final movement, the playing was visceral, breathless and cinematic, despite some scrappy moments. The concertmaster Lev Klychkov played the prominent violin solos with rich sound and fine-spun lyricism.

Thursday’s program began with a gorgeous account of the Prelude to Rimsky-Korsakov’s great opera “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.” After the murky opening measures of the music, when a chorale theme emerged, the chords were shrouded in magical mists of strings and orchestral sonorities.

The brilliant young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, whom I had not heard since 2009 when she took part in Classical Music Day at the White House, was the compelling soloist in a first-rate performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1. Again, playing with incisive rhythm and crisp articulation is not this orchestra’s strong suit. But between Ms. Weilerstein’s impassioned, intelligent playing and the richness and color of the ensemble, this was an organic and arresting account of a great work, one of dozens of major 20th-century scores written for Mstislav Rostropovich.

After all this, how could the bold, vibrant performance of the Brahms symphony not come across as sort of Russian? For an encore, Mr. Temirkanov played the “Nimrod” portrait from Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, drawing lush, dark, cresting sound from his orchestra. No surprise, this landmark British work sounded Russian too.