A Magnificent Russian Export
Russia’s economy stinks and its politics are abominable (except perhaps to Donald Trump).
Yet what remains absolutely first class about the Russians is their musical culture, a fact underlined by the March coast-to-coast US tour of the magnificent Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (SPP), ostensibly to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the orchestra’s relationship with its great music director Yuri Temirkanov.
No hard feelings Maestro Temirkanov but earning hard currency also may have something to do with the tour. The Germans export cars, the French perfume, the Gulf States oil and the Russians send out touring orchestras.
In San Francisco, the SPP played two programs. On Sunday evening, we had Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite in the first half, then after the break Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 played by the sensational newcomer Sayaka Shoji and, finally, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2.
On Monday evening, there was the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with the terrific American pianist Garrick Ohlsson in the first half and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 after the break.
There were two standout items in this material, the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 on Sunday and the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony on Monday.
During the past three months I’ve heard the Prokofiev 2 concerto played three times, each by a top violinist; I found the Shoji performance the best.
Admittedly, the young Japanese player was helped immensely by her collaborators, especially Maestro Temirkanov who is a veritable magician in this music.
Yes, at this stage in his career, the Russian maestro does sometimes appear to be going through the motions; that seemed to be case with the Romeo and Juliet though the fabulous Russian musicians know this music so well that we still had a wonderful full blown performance full of vigor and sublime Prokofiev lyricism.
But it was the Violin Concerto that truly engaged Mr. Temirkanov’s full attention and talents and what a superb performance resulted from the collaboration between the old master and his young protégé.
The second movement—thought by many to contain Prokofiev’s most inspired melody —was the highlight as the calm and demure Ms. Shoji opened up to the work’s full lyrical splendor with a gorgeous sound that always was fully integrated within that of the entire ensemble. The music brought tears to my eyes.
Based only on this one hearing, my impression is that Ms. Shoji may be the best young violinist to come around in a long time.
And unlike so many other contemporary virtuosi, Ms. Shoji is neither a show off or over-the-top in her personal attire and demeanor. Good for her!
The Prokofiev No. 2 was composed in 1935—and recently we’ve had performances in San Francisco of three different great violin concertos written in the fecund 1935-1940 period, a time of great anxiety, turmoil and upheaval; the Prokofiev in 1935, the Barber in 1939 and the Hindemith in 1940.
The exquisitely lyrical Prokofiev was pure escapism. The Russian composer having decided to move back to Russia and live under Stalin didn’t want trouble and gambled he wouldn’t get it if he composed lyrical works like the Violin Concerto 2 and Romeo and Juliet.
Hindemith, on the other hand, was a man on the run from the Nazis. His world was full of tumult and angst when he wrote his Violin Concerto. After the work premiered in Amsterdam, the German fled to Switzerland and eventually settled in America.
Barber’s work is totally divorced from Nazi angst. The American composer started the concerto in Switzerland but was obliged to leave because of the impending war, finishing it in the US.
The concerto is lush lyrical piece worthy of Hollywood. The frenetic third movement is said by some to evoke the evolving fast pace of life in modern American cities like New York. It’s evocative but not very griping.
Just as the spirit of the Russian orchestra’s first evening’s program was Prokofiev lyricism, that of the second evening was Stalinist terror as seen through the eyes of Dmitri Shostakovich. In a sense, both works can be viewed as ‘Stalin’s children’.
Personally I think one of Shostakovich’s friends must have convinced him that if he gave Stalin a triumphant Coda at the end of a symphony, he could get away with a lot in the music that preceded it.
The Fifth Symphony’s first movement is creepy and foreboding; the second is the scherzo, on the surface fun but it’s the fun of skeletons dancing in the graveyard; the deadly serious third movement speaks of a profound emptiness and lost hope and then there is the fabulous final movement with the famous Coda of fake news.
Even a blind man should be able to see through Shostakovich’s ruse.
I was tipped by a friend that the Temirkanov performance in New York City early in the tour was the best performance of this work he had heard in his life. I started to expect really big things when a Wall Street Journal music critic said exactly the same thing.
I was not disappointed; it was indeed a magnificent performance.
Shostakovich’s genius was his ability to use an extraordinarily rich and powerful musical language to communicate his innermost feelings-- heightened by the Stalin era-- of terror, angst, hope, disillusionment and so on.
Shostakovich wrote the piece in 1937 for the SPP and the current orchestra personnel certainly did not let the composer down, especially with Mr. Temirkanov at the helm.
Words can not express how moving this music can be. There are parts that are simply electric, causing you to sit up in your chair as if struck by a bolt of lightening. Other parts make you weep and cringe.
Temirkanov showed himself to be a master of marshalling the enormous forces he had at his disposal—the stage was overfull with musicians—shaping the complex music with his expressive hands, guiding both musicians and audience through the complex minefield of Shostakovich’s tumultuous emotional landscape.
This was truly a performance for the ages—and capped an extraordinary visit by the SPP that will long be remembered by those lucky enough to have been there.
Congratulations to Maestro Temirkanov on his 50th anniversary with the splendid St. Petersburg Philharmonic.