fri 21/11/2014

Vengerov, St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Temirkanov, Barbican Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Vengerov, St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Temirkanov, Barbican Hall

The Russian violinist's London return is a little subdued, but the orchestra lets rip

Maxim Vengerov relaxing, minus his violinSheila Rock

Originally, this concert was to open with that mercurial wonder Martha Argerich playing an unspecified piano concerto. Then its first item became Martha Argerich not playing anything, for the good lady, almost as rare a visitor to Britain as the Man in the Moon, did what she’s famous for doing. She cancelled. Acting with award-winning panache, the Barbican then found a substitute artist who’s recently become even rarer, the violinist Maxim Vengerov. 

Known for his golden tone, charisma and fire, Vengerov last performed in Britain with his violin in 2007: the year of his serious shoulder injury (on his bowing arm, too), which prompted prolonged rest and a recalibration of a stellar career. Since then he’s spent time gearing up to be a conductor. He’s developed a music school for gifted pupils in Israel. He’s worked on humanitarian projects. He’s got married. What he hadn’t done, until last year, was appear anywhere with a fiddle under his chin.

He conjured the sounds of lurching Russian peasants, even saw mills

But he did so in London last night. As he launched upon Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 1, the hors d’oeuvre in the St Petersburg Philharmonic’s Russian feast, it was clear that things had altered. The tone was wirier, less flamboyantly lustrous, more vulnerable – a colouring actually suitable to the decorative silver threads that make up much of this gorgeous concerto’s solo part. At opportune moments, when the notes allowed, Vengerov kept fussing with his violin, adjusting the chin position here, slipping in a spot of quiet tuning there. Was this nerves, or good husbanding? Both, perhaps.

The playing also seemed more studied than before, more sober and responsible, less a force of nature. The old Vengerov would have carried us airborne in the finale, the notes effortlessly spinning forth without pause. The new Vengerov didn’t make it seem so easy; it’s as if he was afraid of heights. At the same time, you had to be refreshed and jolted by his swift and various changes of attack, the tone suddenly shifting, say, from limpid sighs to husky croaks. Down in the lower register, as Prokofiev’s dazzling kaleidoscope turned this way and that, he conjured the sounds of lurching Russian peasants, even saw mills. I also heard, especially in his Bach sarabande encore, masterful and heart-stopping moments of pensive beauty: hopefully a good omen for his Wigmore Hall recital on 5 April (sold out, of course). 

With all eyes and ears on Vengerov, it was easy to forget that the St Petersburg Philharmonic and Yuri Temirkanov, their Principal Conductor of almost 25 years, were actually in the building. But they came into their own in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, inspired by their own city’s wartime agony. The blaze produced at the end was incredible: weighty, resplendent, but almost frightening. When he’s working as a guest conductor Temirkanov can be unpredictable; but with his own players under his fingers he buckled down to a powerful, entirely sensible reading, conveying as strong a sense of sustained argument as Shostakovich’s sometimes wandering score allows. 

Was it Hitler’s war or Stalin’s? It was both; it was all wars

That famously banal theme in the first movement, spattered with snare-drum pattering, proceeded nonchalantly, almost humorously, for quite a stretch (the brass’s casual phrasing was delicious). All the more telling, then, when the slow crescendo accelerated, the knife was twisted, and the idle phrase became the musical motto of a war machine on the march. Was it Hitler’s war or Stalin’s? It was both; it was all wars. Similar magic was worked in the stitched sections of the finale, while the middle movements offered happy chances to enjoy the colourful timbre of brass and winds. Didn’t you just love the sepulchral rasp of Alexey Silyutin’s contra-bassoon? 

Following the Leningrad, Temirkanov proved himself a most considerate guest. You’d normally expect a visiting orchestra like his to come with a homegrown encore, some Russian jewel. Instead they offered a heart-swelling account of one of our own, Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations: the perfect emollient after such a symphony of battering, barricades and barbed wire. 

The playing seemed more studied than before, more sober and responsible, less a force of nature

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