Georgi Sviridov: Small Triptych
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in A Minor
Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps
Jonathan Gilad (piano)
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov (conductor)
Much has changed since the early 1960's when Soviet orchestras first began to tour in the West. In those bad old days the Moscow Symphony under Kondrashin presented works of Romantic music as if they were written for military purposes and concerts featuring the compositions of Brahms and Schumann were invariably played with martial phrasing and heavy handed tempi. Only in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) did the orchestra retain a sense of the Romantic under their long time music director Evgeny Mravinsky. Yuri Temirkanov took over in 1988 and it is gratifying to note that this fine ensemble can still produce a flowing Romantic line even in the face of their personnel's defection from the collapsed ruble to the relatively secure dollar or pound.
Two great pianists toured with the Schumann concerto in the nineteenth century and apparently the seventeen-year-old French pianist Jonathan Gilad has chosen to emulate Clara Schumann rather than Johannes Brahms. Mr. Gilad's conception of the piece is gentle and refined rather than heroic and bombastic and he is faithful to his aesthetic throughout his performance. He possesses a light touch and produces a bell-like tone with virtually all of the keys struck exactly in their center. The orchestra supported this beautiful music making by never playing above a mezzo forte and Mr. Temirkanov seemed to actually enjoy leading his forces in such a flowing legato style. Mr. Gilad has been a soloist with the Israel Philharmonic, the Monte Carlo Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de Toulouse as well as a recital substitute for Maurizio Pollini in America. Except for a tendency to overuse the left pedal during louder passages, turning his arpeggios into overtone soup, his performance of this noble work was excellent and his overall approach refreshing.
The Schumann was preceded by a typically Soviet style piece of music which sounded like every film score written in the 1950's. Sviridov was a student of Shostakovich who turned against his mentor during the Stalinist witch hunt and this Small Triptych is written in the most proper anti-formalist style. Sviridov has enjoyed a mini revival thanks to Dmitri Hvorostovsky's recording of his 1977 song cycle Russia Cast Adrift but his work is reminiscent of those tone poems that Prokofieff was forced to compose for the party, such as Winter Bonfires or The Volga Meets the Don. This government sanctioned music seems destined for the shadow world of the footnote in future texts on music history.
I know that I am in the minority on this, but I never really thought of Le Sacre du Printemps as a particularly good piece of music. I realize its huge importance historically and theoretically, but it takes a truly great performance to excite me. The score is incredibly complex rhythmically (so complicated that when Koussevitsky rehearsed it he had Nicolas Slonimsky stand next to him counting beats) and is filled with pitfalls for a poorly prepared orchestra. The Petersburghers negotiated all of these changing time signatures with ease, even getting all of the silences correct (this is extremely difficult for such a large ensemble) and Mr. Temirkanov was fearless in leading his troops though this sonic minefield. The strings had a polished sound, the woodwinds were gorgeous in their unusual combinations that are the heart of Stravinsky's primitive ethos, the percussion was appropriately earsplitting. Only the brass was disappointing, sounding quite dull (I don't mean boring but rather colorless and lacking in brilliancy), but this is the curse of Eastern European brass technique-they are actually trained to play this way. All in all it was close to a flawless performance.
And that was the problem. This near "perfect" execution left out the most important element. The passion was totally missing from this reading. I would have gladly traded some sloppiness of execution for at least some emotional content. How I longed for a Bernstein with his zaftig interpretation of this music! What Stravinsky called "the poetry of the earth" was left unsung in this ultimately dull (here I do mean boring) and flaccid Le Sacre.
Although more than 50 percent of this subscription audience fled the hall immediately after the last note of the Stravinsky, not even bothering to acknowledge these hard working musicians with their applause, Maestro Temirkanov still honored those of us who remained with two encores, an atmospheric performance of The Enchanted Lake by Liadov which the orchestra will be performing on Friday night, and a lovely Russian version of a Viennese style concert waltz. The orchestra remains on Friday to play Shostakovich and Prokofieff with the violinist Gidon Kremer and Saturday they will perform a program featuring suites from operas by Rimsky-Korsakoff and both suites from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe.
Frederick L. Kirshnit