The soul of Russia, by way of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic

The soul of Russia, by way of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson performs with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge on Thursday. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

It's been a good week for Shostakovich's popular Fifth Symphony. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by guest conductor Jaap van Zweden, gave a powerful reading of the work at Walt Disney Concert Hall at the beginning of the week. It was one of the finest you'll hear from any American ensemble.

However, it's hard to compete with a Russian orchestra performing the Shostakovich symphony as if they had a blood connection to it, as if the pride of Mother Russia herself were at stake.

On Thursday, Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra brought a dark-hued and stirring rendition of the 1937 score to the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge. Breathtakingly organic, their rendition wove detail and instrumental inflection into a seamlessly compelling whole.

Temirkanov, 78, still glides onto the podium. His relaxed warmth is palpable. He's been coming to Los Angeles since 1988, the year he became principal conductor in St. Petersburg. Conducting without a baton, he sculpts musical phrases with his 10 fingers, or, as he told The Times in 2005, with his "10 batons." There's also an old-world integrity in his insistence on using the score for music he's lived with for most of his life. He's not a showoff.

Yuri Temirkanov conducts the St. Petersburg Philharmonic with piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson.
Yuri Temirkanov conducts the St. Petersburg Philharmonic with piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Wielding his 10 batons to extraordinary effect, Temirkanov elicited myriad inner details and colors from the orchestra, building inexorably to Shostakovich's shattering climaxes. The first movement's rich brass playing conveyed an element of menace, with the coda evincing a Russian melancholy that seemed to be coming from all the musicians as one body. There was nothing merely pretty about concertmaster Lev Klychkov's gripping solo in the second movement, suffused with Russian soul.

Temirkanov and the orchestra's gift for sustained pianissimos and long lines came to the fore in the poignant ebb and flow of the third movement Largo. "The majority of my symphonies are tombstones," Shostakovich once said. But, like Mahler's, how achingly beautiful they are in their bleakness, especially in performances like this one.

Composed under the shadow of Stalin, Shostakovich's Fifth comes with all sorts of interpretive ambiguities and political baggage. Temirkanov didn't sidestep any of that exactly. There was plenty of visceral drive and cautious jubilation in the finale, which begins with a militaristic march and builds to a frenzied fanfare for trumpets. The conclusion could be triumphant or bitterly ironic, take your pick. Temirkanov seemed to be saying, "This is a great symphony. Listen."

An extended ovation brought one encore: a spellbinding reading of "Amoroso" from Prokofiev's "Cinderella."

The program began with a solid but uninspired account of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. The score is full of wonders, not least an impassioned Adagio, but Temirkanov and the orchestra sometimes smothered the pianist's contribution. Or so it seemed from where I was sitting, Row G, orchestra left, which was too close to perceive the full soundscape of the orchestra. (I moved to the parterre after intermission.)

Temirkanov and the orchestra handled the epic first movement's arching phrases skillfully, and Ohlsson negotiated Brahms' mischievous and often uncomfortable-looking keyboard contortions with relative ease. Still, for whatever reason, the performance came off, at least from my perch, as uninvolving.


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