Russians always bring the party, and tonight was no exception. From the moment that conductor Yuri Temirkanov’s trembling hand rose to meet the first beat of Khachaturian’s Spartacus Suite it was clear that the vast orchestra was immensely talented. The St. Petersburg Philharmonic had a reputation to uphold, and for this ballet of grand landscapes, of dreams and characters so deftly plucked from the imagination, the imbalance of the orchestra became a mere eccentricity of the music. The same cannot be said for the shaky entries, the split second delay between strings and brass – the orchestra running away from each other, each part a little less of the whole. It is a tribute to the musicians that this did not stop them conjuring an uplifting warmth in the Dance of the Nymphs, creating periods of menacing darkness brought suddenly to light.
Despite the slightly slack nature of the first performance, expectation was high for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 – one that Nikolai Lugansky did his best to fulfil. There is no doubt that he is a technician of the highest caliber, but the concerto lacked soul – it felt more like an exercise than an experience. The music was fragmented in places, and was fumbled by the lack of communication between the soloist and the orchestra. Lugansky was precise and extremely sensitive to dynamic, and played with a virtuosic ferociousness that left the ensemble a spare part. The later movements revealed a much greater sense of direction, without losing the sudden impact of the jumps from ethereal strings to blaring brass. The whole work needed more space; in the few tense and beautiful moments that occurred the music moved on so quickly that the effect was never felt. The concerto blazed to a furious end with great audience acclaim.
The second half was a complete turnaround. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is a deeply moving work, and it was here that the orchestra came into their own. Everything was exquisite – from the heavy fullness of the opening notes to the first violin, who gave an exceptionally expressive performance. It was at this point that the ensemble took off: Colston Hall was swept off in a colourful journey to the East. There was new depth and purpose to the sound, the ensemble creating tension that had the auditorium hanging onto every note. Temirkanov had stood in relative shadow until this point, where his sweeping gestures drove the music on to a climax of epic proportions before fading down to the most beautiful of violin solos. The final harmonic faded away to silence, exquisite silence that lingered before falling to rapturous applause, to standing ovations and the light relief of the sweet English encore We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again.
It was a night of extremes: but the uplifting joy of having your soul handed to you on a cold Tuesday night wiped the faults clean: we could all do with a little more midweek Eastern Promise.