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Culture news, 23.11.2004 11:48

St. Petersburg Philharmonic soars

st_petersburg_philharmonic_tours The ContraCosta Times

By Georgia Rowe

When it comes to playing the Russian repertoire, there may be no orchestra on the planet better qualified than the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. This treasured musical institution made a welcome return to Davies Symphony Hall over the weekend, giving Bay Area audiences three opportunities to experience what can only be described as the definitive Russian sound.

Saturday's concert -- the second of three programs presented under the auspices of the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers series -- offered a brilliant display of the orchestra's strengths. Leading music by Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, music director Yuri Temirkanov elicited the kind of expansive, bravura performances that Russian ensembles are legendary for producing.

Part of what distinguishes this august ensemble is the stamp of tradition. Founded in 1882, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic is Russia's oldest symphony orchestra, one that has played a major role in advancing the careers of many Russian and Soviet composers (it premiered Tchaikovsky's 5th and 6th symphonies and gave the first performances of eight of the 15 symphonies of Shostakovich.)

The orchestra also has an authoritative leader in Temirkanov, who has served as music director since 1988. Under his baton, the ensemble exemplifies the weighty, quintessentially Russian sound. Saturday, the conductor led a divided violin section; the tone, which seemed to swell to fill every corner of Davies Hall, was lush and almost unbearably sweet. The woodwinds were well-defined and vibrant. And when the brass section came alive, it did so with fearsome power.

Nowhere was the music-making quite so thrilling -- or as challenging -- as in the evening's performance of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. Lynn Harrell, the soloist for the work, is American, but he and Temirkanov were of one mind about the composer's darkly sardonic, ferociously expressive 1959 score.

Harrell's burnished, mordantly etched tone blended beautifully with the orchestra, from the four-note motif that introduces the grim, relentless music of the first movement. The slow second movement was haunting, dreamlike and played with penetrating intensity. Harrell gave the extended cadenza -- set aside as a separate movement -- an astonishingly improvisational feel. The manic finale pitted soloist and orchestra in a furious race to the double bar, with Temirkanov skillfully integrating the performances.

Harrell, always a mesmerizing performer, returned for an encore, an elegant performance of the Sarabande from Bach's Suite in C minor No. 5 for unaccompanied cello.

If the Shostakovich represented the modern end of the Russian spectrum, fans of the Romantic repertoire probably found their greatest reward in the evening's richly colored performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B minor, "Pathetique." Temirkanov invested the music with the kind of gravitas that American orchestras rarely seem to muster, and the orchestra poured their hearts into the score. The resulting sound was pure pleasure.

There was something for opera lovers, too: a vivacious performance of Prokofiev's Suite from "The Love for Three Oranges." Most orchestras smooth out the rough edges in this quirky, characterful score, but Temirkanov seemed to relish every defining mark. The results were loud, brash, edgy and immensely engaging. This was Prokofiev's music as it was meant to be played -- and, perhaps, as only this orchestra can play it.

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