Yuri Temirkanov. Photo: Accademia di Santa Cecilia

On Saturday night, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra came to Carnegie Hall, for two great pieces: the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor and the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. The soloist in the Brahms was Nikolai Lugansky. On the podium was Yuri Temirkanov, the Petersburgers’ longtime conductor.

He succeeded an even longer-time conductor: Yevgeny Mravinsky, who was on that podium for a full fifty years (1938–88). You thought Ormandy’s tenure in Philadelphia was long? (That was forty-four years.)

This has been a good period in New York for senior, batonless conductors. Herbert Blomstedt recently conducted the New York Philharmonic. Temirkanov is another who goes batonless.

The opening measures of the Brahms concerto were very strange. The orchestra was tame, subdued, with no thunder and little energy. As the music continued, the orchestra was still tame, and muddy. The tempo was slow. The music was undefined, or muddily defined. Things would not get much better from the orchestra for the duration of the movement.

Nikolai Lugansky is a poised, smart, proficient pianist. He sits there with excellent posture, his concert tails draped over the bench. Lugansky played this first movement with his usual intelligence. But his sound was not optimal. This movement wants a fat sound, a Brahmsian sound, if you will. Lugansky’s was more laser-like. Also, he was often too soft. (This is volume I’m speaking of.)

Overall, the first movement of the concerto, from both pianist and orchestra, was perfectly competent—but not especially good.

The second movement—that sublime, religioso movement—was good. Very good. It had its warmth, even its healing property. Temirkanov gave his tender loving care to the music. There are few conductors so good at tender loving care.

I was looking forward to the last movement, the Rondo, because I figured it would suit Lugansky to a T. It was all right. It was a little muddy, lacking precision and fire. Pianist and conductor seemed not to agree on tempo. The music did not engage, inspire, and thrill as it can—but it was okay.

Incidentally, there was a cellist in the orchestra who reminded me of the young Brahms—perhaps because we were hearing Brahms: long hair and broad forehead.

Lugansky played an encore, a favorite of his, and a favorite of Horowitz’s before him: Mendelssohn’s Song without Words in D major, Op. 85, No. 4. Lugansky rendered it with due fondness.

And how about the Fifth? When we say “the Fifth,” we usually mean Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. So too, when we say “the Ninth,” we mean Beethoven’s.

Shostakovich shrank from writing a monumental Ninth. He did not want the pressure. Instead, he wrote a more modest, Classical symphony. A counter-Ninth, if you will. But his Fifth? There is a great deal to say about this work, but I will say merely this: it is worthy of mention in the same breath as that other Fifth.

From the second he began it, Temirkanov was at one with it. At one with the score, Shostakovich, everything. His mind was right there. Utterly focused, utterly on target. The sound of the orchestra was exemplary. Even when the music was calm, there was fear in it, at least a streak. The tempo was on the fast side, but it never seemed wrong. Early on, there was a breakdown somewhere in the orchestra. But it mattered little.

The flute, when it was his or her turn, was good. And the horn didn’t split. How often does the horn split in this movement! An unsplitting horn almost jars the ear.

Temirkanov lent this music his considerable wisdom and experience. Now, do I say that because I know he’s almost eighty and did much of his living in the Soviet Union? I don’t know, frankly. I really don’t.

I like the transition from the first movement to the second to be almost attacca: almost immediate. This may be owing to the fact that I did a lot of listening to records when I was young. And, on a record, one track follows another, usually pretty briskly. In any case, Temirkanov took his time between the first two movements. It bothered me, weirdly.

When the second movement began, it began with a lousy entrance. Temirkanov took a fast tempo in this movement. The music seemed practically rushed to me. But I’m loath to argue with Temirkanov on this point. The third movement, the slow movement, I can’t tell you very much about: I was simply lost in Shostakovich. Temirkanov conducted the music transparently.

The finale, like the Allegretto, began with a lousy entrance. But then the timpani banged, and the brass blared, arrestingly, unerringly. Temirkanov rode the symphony home with sure understanding and power.

You may want to know about the last pages—those controversial, much-discussed pages. Are they triumphant? Defiant? Weary? Defeated? Resigned? Temirkanov conducted them like a parody of triumph. A weary, disgusted, “Do I have to?” triumph. Highly effective.

Let me jot a footnote: Temirkanov has undoubtedly known this piece since he was a child. Every note. He has probably conducted it 300 times. But, on Saturday night, he read every note. Every one. His face was never out of the score.

Different conductors have different habits. Maazel would conduct from memory a piece that the composer had submitted the night before. Everyone has his own way of doing it.

In my experience, Temirkanov likes slow, beautiful, entrancing encores. He often uses Elgar’s “Nimrod” Variation, or that same composer’s Salut d’amour. On Saturday night, he had his orchestra play the Amoroso from Cinderella, Prokofiev’s ballet. How was it? Well, if I weren’t such a hardened bastard, I might have shed a tear.

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