Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Stunning Partnership of a San Francisco Pianist with a Russian Orchestra

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra gave the second of its two Great Performers Series concerts, presented by the San Francisco Symphony. They were led by Artistic Director and Chief Conductor Yuri Temirkanov. The program consisted of only two compositions, a concerto, Johannes Brahms’ Opus 15 (first) in D minor, and a symphony, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 47 (fifth), also in D minor. There is a long rhetorical tradition that D minor is one of the bleakest of tonalities. Some even refer to it as the key of death, but last night’s performance could not have been livelier.

The concerto was distinguished by having San Francisco resident Garrick Ohlsson as the soloist. We thus had a Russian ensemble visiting San Francisco and a San Franciscan pianist visiting the ensemble. The “cross-cultural” chemistry could not have been better. Over the course of his many visits with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, Temirkanov has established himself for being sensitive to the slightest detail without ever neglecting the overall rhetorical drive behind the music itself. That talent made him and excellent choice to present Brahms’ Opus 15. This is music that boils and surges with intense rhetoric, not only in the raw athleticism required for the keyboard work but also in the no-holds-barred intensity of the ensemble passages. The score begins with a threatening roar and concludes with what can only be called a victory lap, allowing its energy level to ease off only during the middle Adagio movement.

Fortunately, both Temirkanov and Ohlsson understood fully that such energy levels are only effective if properly modulated. This is a matter of having the ability “to sort out the climaxes from the lesser peaks, so that the real ones stand out,” as James Oesterich of The New York Times put it in reporting on an interview with Pierre Boulez about conducting Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony. Ultimately, there is only one “real” peak at the conclusion of Opus 15; and both Temirkanov and Ohlsson were of a common mind in how to hold back on all of the other peaks. The result was an account of the concerto that was always propelling the listener forward to take on the next climax but always gauged to save the best for the last.

This clear sense of gauging climaxes was clearly also on Temirkanov’s mind in his interpretation of Shostakovich’s Opus 47. This is the symphony, written in 1937, through which Shostakovich redeemed himself in the eyes of Joseph Stalin’s authoritarian rule, having been denounced for the “muddle” of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936. (Considering how Stalin treated others who crossed his path the wrong way, Shostakovich’s period in the “penalty box” was relatively mild, although Shostakovich himself probably did not feel that way.)

On the surface it would appear that Opus 47 was scrupulously calculated to deliver all the goods that would make Stalin happy, with full-throated triumphalism as its primary rhetorical stance. Beneath the surface was another matter. Indeed, the Allegretto scherzo in the second movement is a clear sign of the high value Shostakovich placed on Mahler’s symphonies and his awareness of Mahler’s capacity for sardonic rhetoric in his own scherzos. One can almost see Stalin merrily tapping his foot to the clearly defined beat while any number of less positive thoughts were clunking around in the back of Shostakovich’s head.

Nevertheless, one cannot deny that triumphalism rules in Opus 47’s final movement. Here, again, it is important to establish that the coda of this symphony is its “greatest peak.” Temirkanov knew how to let the opening crescendo of the fourth movement have its say; but that crescendo was a “lesser peak” in the overall plan of a much slower crescendo that built to the one true climax. That climax, in turn, involves its own internal prolongations. The resulting effect is that, once you think you have arrived at full strength, you discover that things will only get stronger; and the coda is designed as a series of such deceptions culminating in an “ultimate fulfillment.” It goes without saying that keeping this movement from devolving into mindless spectacle is no mean feat, but Temirkanov clearly knew how to keep everything under control. This was definitely a reading of Opus 47 to remember for a long time to come.

The program was also distinguished by having both pianist and conductor take an encore. Ohlsson’s selection could not have been more familiar, the C-sharp minor prelude that is the second piece in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 3 collection of five Morceaux de fantaisie (fantasy pieces). This has been called “The Bells of Moscow” because of the steady tolling of the left-hand line. Ohlsson gave it a reading that captured both the grandeur of the imagery and the intimacy of the keyboard setting at the same time, effectively creating a sense of a first impression, rather than a familiar one. Temirkanov, on the other hand, followed the abject triumphalism of Shostakovich with the quiet intimacy of the “enchantment” music from Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 87, his score for the three-act ballet Cinderella. The contrast could not have been more effective, reminding all in the audience of the full breadth of diversity in the repertoire Temirkanov has prepared for his ensemble.

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