St. Petersburg Philharmonic brings precision to Symphony Hall

04.12.11
St. Petersburg Philharmonic
Boston Globe

By Matthew Guerrieri

Yuri Temirkanov, artistic director

With Alisa Weilerstein, cello

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Symphony Hall, Sunday

“Machine-like’’ is not normally a musical compliment, but the St. Petersburg Philharmonic is a magnificent musical machine, one in which the engineering is of such precision that it becomes expressive in and of itself.

Their Sunday concert at Symphony Hall opened with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture,’’ a dazzling test lap: the unison woodwind chant at the outset polished to a high gloss; shifts of color and tempo automatic-transmission smooth; the rhythmic energy so effortlessly sure-footed that the power and speed went almost unnoticed amid the comfort of the ride.

And yet the machine never was merely efficient. The orchestra’s blueprint is a sound so deep that bold dashes of individual expression — of which the “Russian Easter Overture’’ offered plenty, none of it shy — seemed to grow out of the ensemble, rather than glance off it. A big, burnished foundation from the cellos and basses ran like a spine through the orchestra; the woodwinds layered in wide-bandwidth, organ-like tones. Yuri Temirkanov, the group’s longtime conductor, marked architecturally elegant outlines with a kind of nonchalant grace, the players filling in his frames with rich finish.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, a work the orchestra premiered back in 1959, put a menacing spin on the ensemble’s confidence. The soloist was the American cellist Alisa Weilerstein; while the orchestra cultivated an illusion of ease, Weilerstein’s expression was often purposefully effortful, with flamboyantly percussive bowing and wiry sounds. But the contrast worked. In the grim marches of Shostakovich’s outer movements, her intensity chafed against the orchestra’s crisp, implacable accents. It made the inner movements all the more affecting, their restrained lyricism like the sun behind a haze of clouds, Weilerstein drawing out long, limpid threads of spun glass.

The Symphony No. 4 of Johannes Brahms started in slightly blatant form, a little more edge and less rigor than the playing in the concert’s first half, but the performance settled in by the end of the second movement, with waves of resigned grandeur. The Allegro giocoso was both plush and unpredictable, a roller coaster with deep cushions, transformed into a keen, dark cortège for the finale. But the luxury of the sound was balanced by Temirkanov’s disciplined, classical phrasing. That combination of restraint and splendor was perfectly suited to the encore, the “Nimrod’’ movement from Elgar’s “Enigma’’ Variations, rendered as one great, noble, volcanic sigh.