St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, October 17, 2017
St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Alexander Dmitriev
Piano: John Lill
Musorgsky: A Night On The Bare Mountain
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, Op.44
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op.36
When we refer to ‘Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto‘ we need to specify the key signature and/or the opus number, because there are two. Not many remember that. The other, in D minor, is a piece of juvenilia, written with Mozartian precocity and bravura when the composer was thirteen. That posterity has chosen to regard the superior one as the more popular only goes to show that music-lovers can be both predictable and astute. With the three Tchaikovsky piano concertos, they are probably still on the nail by always going for the magisterial first, though the differences in quality between it and the others are not so clear. The three are products of Tchaikovsky’s maturity (Concerto No. 3 was left uncompleted at his death), whereas the Mendelssohn works are simply matters of a throwaway virtuosity being refined with age. Good on the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra for including Tchaikovsky’s Second in their all-Russian programme for Cardiff.
Some may not have read the small print, and thus possibly confronted the double whammy of also believing that the orchestra used to be the Leningrad Philharmonic. Not so. The Leningrad Philharmonic is now the St Petersburg Philharmonic and is the older and more famous band of the two, at least beyond Russia’s borders. At home, however, the difference in renown is less insisted upon, and under the St Petersburg Philharmonia banner the two are billed as ‘the St Petersburg orchestras’. Well, we double up in London, but in many other large capitals, where the musical bounty is not so great, it’s only one orchestra that takes the name. Berlin, though, has an SO and a Phil (and a Konzerthausorchester, formerly the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester). The St Petersburg SO has heroic antecedents, its predecessor having survived the Leningrad siege.
The point being made here in terms of both music and musicians is that in both cases there are no preceding reputations as there are with what’s more well-known and largely higher-ranking. What the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra and the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 sound like are therefore not the subject of self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, neither John Lill nor the orchestra’s long-standing conductor, Alexander Dmitriev, did much to hide the work’s irregularities, particularly in opting for a restoration of cuts made by the composer’s pupil, Alexander Ziloti, in what is a mammoth work by 19th-century concerto standards. While a noble gambit, they did not entirely convince us that alterations by any hand did Tchaikovsky a disservice. The first two movements seem to outlive their material rather than stay around to develop it with conviction. One feels that the disassociation between soloist and orchestra cannot be repaired, especially in the way Lill often seemed to be ploughing an even deeper furrow, making the gap between them even wider.
When his major cadenza arrived in the opening allegro brillante, we appeared to be hearing it as something summoned from the depths, though as concerto intervals go it was rigorously executed, the various manifestations of the movement’s main theme being clearly articulated. In restored version, the second movement edges even more towards the form of a triple concerto, the contributions from the orchestra’s leader, Aleksander Shustin, and the principal cello, Sergei Pechatin, serving as examples of the orchestra’s breadth of experience as well as the concerto’s oddities, not least the five-minute gap between the opening duo (Pechatin changing position to be on the conductor’s left) and the piano’s entry. The extended piano-less episode showed how Dmitriev was revelling in the work’s length, its slowly changing shape – changing, not evolving, for the soloist scarcely makes a comeback, Lill’s almost detached keyboard manner never promising that it might. The final movement is and was a delight, everyone avoiding the feeling that its vivacity and rapture marked an escape from the preceding detention. That being detained was a pleasure said a lot for listening to this work in its original form.
Russian orchestras perform Russian repertory in a Russian way, in that they make a big sound, but it’s intense rather than vast. Amplitude is the mark especially of the heavyweight American orchestras. There’s a difference. They also perform it with proprietorial affection and knowledge, in the closing bars of Musorgsky’s A Night On The Bare Mountain here splendidly evoking the calm after the storm of debauchery, and Dmitriev insisting that the bell-signalled coda should be slowly rolled out to resemble an hypnotic, long-smouldering fire. Contrast this with his choice of brisk tempi where one often encounters ponderous ones in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, conspicuously directed without a score. It became an interpretative nicety because so often in this work the quieter episodes, particularly in the second movement, are never far from the brassy motto theme of Fate, so invincibly ready to interrupt any dreams of respite.
It was as if Dmitriev was keen to express their urgency as well as their reassurance. It’s barely a qualification, but he couldn’t redress the slight imbalance between head and heart as thunderous brass overcame polished strings in those places where they’re in close proximity, even though the strings were amply populated and everywhere of one accord. It generated a quibble, compared with the admiration elicited for the seamless coming and going of confused emotions in the third movement. The final movement, that valiant attempt to see off Fate by referring to those over whom the Damoclean sword doesn’t appear to hover, was rousing to the point of indifference, but that brass choir was ever ready to spoil things.
The brief pre-concert recital by pianists Dafydd Chapman (Bach, Prokofiev) and Tomos Boyles (Britten, Bortkiewicz, Vine) on the hall’s Level 3 didn’t show these two talented musicians to advantage. Organised by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, where they are on the Saturday-morning advanced music course at its Junior Conservatoire, their appearance attracted a captive audience and one evidently in the wrong mood to listen without interruption. It’s an audience in chatty mood, gathering for a different purpose. The result was partly to reduce the exertions of the pair to background music. With bar staff having to tinkle away with assorted glassware, the attention was never going to be totally undivided.
Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review. He is a poet, novelist, and story writer. His latest collection of stories, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published last year. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He also writes and reviews for Jazz Journal.
Header photo of John Lill courtesy Askonas Holt