St. Pete’s sounds like old Russia

Times Staff Writer

For good and for ill, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, which came to the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night, is old Russia. The old is literal.

Not only is this Russia’s longest standing symphonic ensemble, but these St. Petersburgers maintain a musical tradition unmatched anywhere. Yevgeny Mravinsky, probably the greatest Russian conductor of all time, became the orchestra’s music director in 1938 and held the post until his death 50 years later. For the last 19 years, Yuri Temirkanov, who began his own career as Mravinsky’s assistant, has led the ensemble.

Such continuity is especially remarkable in Russia, where venerable performing arts institutions have either been remade with new blood (as Valery Gergiev has done at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg) or gone through chaos (as has been the case at the Bolshoi in Moscow for several years now). One solution in the post-perestroika orchestra business has been simply to form new ones, which is what has also happened in Moscow.


But the St. Petersburg Philharmonic carries on as it always has. The average age of the players appears somewhat older than one finds at the Mariinsky or the newer Russian National Orchestra. Tradition is also maintained culturally. Every name on the Philharmonic roster is Russian, and men outnumber women by a wide margin.

The program Temirkanov brought to L.A. could not have been more arrogantly unambitious were the orchestra still managed by Soviet bureaucrats (although Mravinsky actually was noted for premiering major works by Prokofiev and Shostakovich as well as daring to play European modernists such as Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith). A Schumann staple, the Piano Concerto, was the main work of the first half, which began with Schubert’s easy-listening fave: the Entr’acte No. 3 from “Rosamunde.” For the second half, Temirkanov offered a mere nine of the 52 numbers from Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet.”

Timewise, the Prokofiev Suite, which lasted about 30 minutes, was a rip-off, but the performance was extraordinary. The Schumann, which featured Nelson Freire as soloist, was inexplicable.

Freire and the Russians were in the same room but not the same world. The Brazilian pianist, who is today gray and barrel-chested, made a brilliant career start in the late ‘50s as a fiery dynamo. He never quite broke into the upper echelon, and by the ‘90s he became best known as one of Martha Argerich’s partners in two piano works. But in the last few years, Freire has become a sensation again. Last month, his new recording of the two Brahms piano concertos was named record of the year by Gramophone magazine.

A little of what made Freire’s latest Schumann recital disc special was evident Thursday. His tone is crisp and sparkling. His rhythmic sense is clean and complex. He tends not to land quite on the beat in a subtle toying with time.

Freire is hardly without soul, and the Russians have soul in reserve, but their souls aren’t the same. The pianist played as if a turtle in his shell, rarely demonstrating much connection with the orchestra. Temirkanov followed somewhat, but following is not in his nature. There was luster in the orchestra and huge amounts of it from the piano, but one type tended to cancel out the other in a dull performance.


On his own, Temirkanov is anything but dull. His conducting style is his own. With great, expressive hands, he has no need for a baton. Instead he has created a personal sign language immediately communicative and signifying much. He shapes and molds phrases like a visual artist or even magician. Under these hands, even the little Schubert piece was so exquisitely molded as if to make its familiar melody sound unsullied.

If the “Romeo and Juliet” excerpts were barely more than a Prokofiev tease, they did, at least, demonstrate the impressive unity of sound the orchestra can produce. Dark is its natural shade, and winds, strings, brass and percussion all emphasize the moody shadings of their instruments.

Loud is something else this orchestra likes. But most striking of all were the surprising soft passages that Temirkanov would sometimes suddenly enforce. For all the bluster of the Montagues and Capulets, they could be stopped in their tracks by a chilling, mystical wind that seemed to blow through the suite. And given the way that Temirkanov conducted each number from that ballet as one uninterrupted phrase, he added an ineffable sense of tragedy to everything.

This Romeo and Juliet carried the weight of the world on their shoulders. Temirkanov ended with the heavy hammers of “Tybalt’s Death,” as if to show that forces greater than the fortunes of individuals were at play. No one, at least in old Russia, escapes fate.