St. Petersburg Philharmonic live review (April 15, 2011)

St. Petersburg Philharmonic Shines at Bailey

Had gastronome Brillat-Savarin been a musician, he might have quipped, “Tell me what you play, I will tell you who you are,” which is to say that music is nothing without the instrument through which one expresses it. Therein lies the snag in Friday night’s performance by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, whose fabulous coruscations were tempered by a quiet shadow.

But first, the good. As Russia’s oldest symphonic ensemble, the SPPO exudes professionalism and the charisma to match. Before a sold-out Bailey Hall crowd, conductor Nikolai Alexeev led a hefty program comprising of two major works from his homeland.

Composed at the dawn the twentieth century, the Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 18 of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) stands as one of the most enduring testaments to pianistic craft. It marked the end of a depression brought about by the derision with which the composer’s first symphony was met at its 1897 premier. Though among the more difficult concertos to master, at the hands of soloist Nikolai Lugansky the concerto’s complexities melted into a vibrant wash of sound. Lugansky’s poise was a joy to witness firsthand. Sadly, at least from where I was sitting, one was hard-pressed to say the same about the Steinway at his fingertips. A beautiful instrument in its own right, yet with such a watery middle range that it simply wasn’t up to the task of netting an entire orchestra, it seemed to get lost in itself. Similar issues marred the recent Leonidas Kavakos performance, which was otherwise technically first rate.

Lugansky

Rachmaninoff’s concerto is an epic, multilayered piece, but its vibrant colors seemed finger-painted in muddy passages with little separation. And while the piano’s lower and higher registers occasionally cut through the din with fortitude, for the most part Lugansky was lost in the orchestra’s massive sonic mazes. This was by no means the fault of the artists, who nevertheless wrenched out as visceral a performance as one could have hoped for. From the famous bell tolls that open the piece to the rapturous handsprings that close it, the music leapt from Lugansky’s hands almost as many times as he did from his seat when trying to wrench as much volume from the piano as he could. Along the way, he shared captivating little dialogues with winds, most clearly balanced in the second movement, where the quieter surroundings allowed the piano to breathe. As if from a deep slumber, its stepwise descent was awakened by the majestic runs of the final movement. The most heartfelt moments were to be found here, set off to captivating effect by Lugansky’s lithe trills and finger pedaling. And as the music’s Rhapsody in Blue-esque dramaturgy wound to a close, the crowd rose to its feet amid shouts of “Bravo!”

Rachmaninov

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) composed his famed Scheherazade, Op. 35 in 1888. Based loosely on tales from The Arabian Nights, this symphonic suite depicts musically what the classic literary work does textually. The story, in the composer’s words: “The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales…for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.” And, surely, one can imagine the power of her storytelling in the music. Scheherazade herself makes frequent sonic cameos therein, represented by a leitmotif of violin and harp that runs like a golden thread. Thankfully, the piece has flourished beyond its Orientalist roots as a programmatic masterpiece that was a thrill to hear in such close quarters. Any acoustical issues were taken backstage with the piano, thereby allowing the SPPO to shine. Alexeev’s skillful direction was a pleasure and, at certain moments, brought the musicians to frenzied heights. Their strengths were found in what are often an orchestra’s most underappreciated sections: brass, winds and percussion. Like drummers or keyboardists in rock bands, their accents are the key to a seamless collective sound, and this they brought in full. Principal clarinetist Andrey Laukhin did a particularly fine job with his many rousing passages. Not to be outdone, however, were concertmaster Lev Klychkov and principal cellist Dmitry Khrychev, both of whom figured as leading voices. Klychkov’s bow made a few unintended noises, while Khrychev’s sound came off as flat at times, which perhaps explains the few boos they received during curtain call. Otherwise, they brought due passion and verve to the proceedings.

Rimsky-Korsakov

A humorous moment occurred when, as the audience was clapping after the first section, Alexeev took the opportunity to empty his nose into a handkerchief, encouraging further applause as he did so. This interaction was true to the free-spiritedness that pervaded the entire evening. These were performers who clearly enjoyed what they were doing and who invited us into that revelry at every turn, such that someone sitting in the audience sitting behind me couldn’t help but occasionally whistle along. The second standing ovation was met with a delectable finale in the form of the “Trepak,” or “Russian Dance,” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker — which, from the sound of it, they could have played in their sleep.

Quibbles aside, this was one of the finer of this season’s Bailey Concert Series performances here at Cornell, and left a satisfied house in its wake. The orchestra’s world-class reputation held its water, while Lugansky, who graciously signed CDs and programs after the show, brought a palpable inertia to the playing. All the more unfortunate, then, that the piano should have asserted an incongruent gravity of its own.

See this review in its original form here.

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