St. Petersburg Orchestra easily scales the peaks

04.01.11
St. Petersburg Philharmonic
Chicago Tribune

By Alan G. Artner

Visits by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and its artistic director, Yuri Temirkanov, long have brought performances gleaming with color, and so it was again Wednesday night at Orchestra Hall.

Contemporary Russian music was missing from the program, but accounts of standard repertory by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Antonin Dvorak were marked by winning freshness, and the modern masterpiece from Dmitri Shostakovich conveyed a good deal more.

Mstislav Rostropovich was the dedicatee of Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, and his performances usually outdistanced those of anyone else. Not on Wednesday. The young American Alisa Weilerstein showed a deep, dark intensity united to biting drama. If she did not have the master's range of tone and volume, her sense of repose gave access to a new level of self-communing.

Completely assured in the quiet high writing, Weilerstein shone especially in the long cadenza, with which she took her time, achieving singular poetry. Twenty years ago, Temirkanov accompanied Natalia Gutman on one of the work's finest recordings. But that was with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which the Petersburg surpassed in atmosphere. On Wednesday the first horn and tympani showed particular command in creating the thrust also essential to the composer's vision.

The program opened with Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter" Overture, played luminously but not as a mere showpiece.

Temirkanov's loving traversal did not smooth over seams in the work's construction. Instead, liturgical solemnity and celebration both received their due, being wedded only in the last few pages, where the whole caught fire memorably.

The restraint of Temirkanov's Dvorak Ninth Symphony was a surprise. Everything had measure.

Nobility and rusticity came across with fairly simple directness. Brass playing was not without blemish, though one relished how the loudest passages blended with the rest of the orchestra, never overpowering.

The single encore was Edward Elgar's "Salut d'Amour," given such fine-toned tenderness that listeners responded with a satisfied, "Ahh."