St. Petersburg’s Sound, Then and Now

By Sedgwick Clark

One of Yuri Temirkanov’s goals when he became music director of the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Philharmonic in 1988 was to give it a more “international” sound—to smooth over the deliberately edgy sonority cultured by the ensemble’s long-time maestro, Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988).

Why, I wondered? The orchestra’s four concerts of Russian music under Gennady Rozhdestvensky at Carnegie Hall in October and November 1973 had been among the most exciting I’d ever heard. The hair-raising performance of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini (at a time when I had some hair to raise) was unbelievably terrifying. The incredibly precise torrent of strings as literature’s most perfervid adulterers writhed in eternal punishment remains equaled in my memory solely by my one and only viewing of the film Fatal Attraction. I couldn’t even think of sex for days. The laser-beam brass cut through but never overwhelmed the huge bodies of strings and woodwinds. And in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the timpanist displayed the kind of flair in the finale that no one in our day of soberer-than-thou music-making would dare, flourishing his sticks in the air on alternate beats as the coda marched to its majestic end. Rozhdestvensky’s performances of Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Scythian Suite, the brand new Shostakovich Fifteenth, and several other works remain among my highlights of four-and-a-half decades of concert going.

So what has Temirkanov’s leadership accomplished? He shaved off the edge, that’s for sure. In a pair of St. Petersburg concerts at Carnegie last week, the conductor conjured a gigantic cushion of sound in excerpts from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. This is a huge orchestra, with ten double basses, and correspondingly augmented violins and violas—as sumptuous an orchestral sonority as exists on the planet today, without a hint of the stridency one hears from many American orchestras that force their tone to achieve greater volume.

In Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, the pianissimo cellos and double basses in the opening motto sounded like a chorus of Russian basses. Innumerable eye-rolling moments of orchestral beauty enveloped me during the work’s three-quarter hour duration. But my disappointment with this performance had nothing to do with the playing or conducting. It was about Temirkanov’s decision to prune huge chunks of a piece he once honored in toto.

All conductors used to cut this gloriously garrulous piece. In the 1940s, Eugene Ormandy, claiming the composer’s imprimatur, fashioned a heavily trimmed but musically cogent performing version through which most of us prior to 1970 learned the piece. In the late 1960s, Decca/London released the first uncut recording of the work by Paul Kletzki and the Suisse Romande orchestra, followed by André Previn’s highly regarded London Symphony recording from1973 on EMI.

Enter Temirkanov. His 1978 recording of the work with the Royal Philharmonic (EMI) is the Holy Grail of the true Rachmaninoffian. It is a great performance, and it is complete. (Only Rozhdestvensky and Gergiev on LSO LIVE, to my knowledge, gild the lily by including the four-and-a-half-minute first-movement exposition repeat.) Inexplicably, the Temirkanov recording has never been transferred to CD.

He rerecorded a sliced-and-diced version of the Rach2 for RCA at the same time he performed it last in New York with the SPb’ers at Carnegie, on November 5, 1993. Whether the cuts were the same when he last conducted it doesn’t matter; I was equally annoyed.

So is either brand of this Russian band superior? Neither is by any stretch “international.” Fortunately, we have Mravinsky’s recordings—mostly live, as he hated to record—to remind us of the intensely dramatic instrument he crafted. And we can wallow on Temirkanov’s giant davenport.

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