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Brilliantly Festive

Mike Wheeler listens to
the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra


The St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra opened their otherwise all-Tchaikovsky programme (Assembly Rooms, Derby, UK, 8 October 2009) with two pieces from Musorgsky's Khovanshchina. The Prelude emerged in a single beautifully controlled arch, while there was plenty of exotic colour in the Dance of the Persian Slaves.

Barry Douglas was the soloist in one of the most deeply satisfying performances of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 I can remember. This was a genuine dialogue between soloist and orchestra, with a beautifully subtle control of pace. While the big gestures were not short-changed in any way, the more playful moments were also impressive. There was some lovely soft string playing at the start of the slow movement, and the scherzo section glittered and bubbled.

It made a refreshing change, too, to hear one of Tchaikovsky's less familiar symphonies, No 1, after the interval. It's an endearing work, in spite of occasional weaknesses, and the composer remained justifiably fond of it. Conductor Vladimir Altschuler shaped an affectionate reading, with the orchestra producing some alert woodwind playing. The second movement had plenty of atmosphere, in spite of the occasional lack of precision. The third movement's teasing rhythms were nicely sprung, and in the finale, despite a rather shaky start to the central fugal section (not one of Tchaikovsky's more inspired passages in any case) the performance rose thrillingly to the work's brilliantly festive conclusion.

Six days after their Derby appearance, the orchestra visited Nottingham (Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, UK, 14 October 2009) with a different conductor and a different first half to their programme. With Alexander Dimitriev at the helm, this time, they began with three excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, producing silky string tone, and an engaging lift to the rhythms.

Guy Johnston joined the orchestra for Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto No 1. It was a reading full of elegance (including some nicely detailed orchestral playing), which it needs, but I missed a sense of drive and urgency in the outer sections, which is also essential. The result was a rather soft-focus performance, although the delicately pointed account of the central minuet brought out a strain of wistfulness that felt exactly right.

Tchaikovsky's First Symphony also got off to a somewhat laid-back start, but it was an engaging performance, full of lively details, with shapely woodwind playing, and the brief emergence of delightfully smoky-toned violas in the second movement. There was lively rhythmic playing in the scherzo, and the central waltz was kept nice and airy. Full cellos and violas, rather than solo as marked in the score, played the brief phrases at the end. The finale moved at a slightly measured tempo, but this actually enhanced its celebratory character.

Copyright © 16 October 2009 Mike Wheeler,
Derby UK







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