Sunday, February 16, 2014

St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra - Rimsky-Korsakov, Kancheli & Tchaikovsky - 02/13/14

Conductor: Yuri Temirkanov
Rimsky-Korsakov: Excerpts from The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (arr. Maximilian Steinberg)
Cortège nuptial
L'invasion des Tartares
La bataille de Kerjenetz
Prélude - Hymne à la Nature
Kancheli: ... al Niente
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 - Denis Kozhukihn

Just as New York City was unhappily putting up with the aftermath of its biggest snow storm of the season yet - and this year, this actually means something - The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra showed up totally nonplussed at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, never mind the all-night journey that had just gone through from Washington, DC to make sure that they would actually make it to New York in time. On the other hand, this may have been just another day in the office for St. Petersburg's other prestigious orchestra, which can also boast of tracing its history all the way back to 1882, when it became Russia's first symphony orchestra.
Since we had Russian musicians and conductor as well as Russian weather, it only made sense that we had a resolutely Russian program too. Indeed, the three works to be performed constituted a nice foray in the vast Russian repertoire with excerpts from a rarely produced opera, a contemporary piece dedicated to Maestro Temirkanov and one of the world's most popular warhorses. All this considered, my friend Linden and I grudgingly but determinedly negotiated the city's dreadful combination of tall icebergs, deep puddles, icy patches and slippery slush to join a largely Russian crowd for a full Russian immersion evening.

Knowing Rimsky-Korsakov essentially through its spell-binding Scheherazade, I was not overly surprised to find the excerpts from The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh oozing the same plush melodic qualities. From the carefree spirit of the wedding procession to the colorfully dramatic invasion and battle, to the delicately bucolic hymn to nature, the orchestra gave a lavishly flowing performance of those pretty much self-contained highlights of the reputedly downright enchanting and borderline silly opera.
Then we jumped right into the very beginning of the third millennium with Georgian composer Giya Kancheli and his mystical evocation of nothingness. Although it required the full orchestra, the one 30-minute movement was for the most part a minimalist piece made of kaleidoscopic moments of hypnotic stillness, explosive outbursts and tentative momentum. Not unlike Messaien's Quartet for the End of Time, ... al Niente turned out to be a fascinating exploration of time and its mysteries, during which anything sounded possible and the unexpected did in fact happen now and then.
Wisely placed at the end of the program to make sure nobody would escape right after it and before the end of the concert, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 eventually made its customary grand entrance. Cutting a young and Romantic figure with his slender frame and blond ponytail, Russian (of course!) pianist Denis Kozhukhin went straight for the kill and dazzlingly tamed the wild beast without any discernible wavering. Solidly in command, he played with unfussy virtuosity, brilliantly exposing the work's emotional power, flamboyant lyricism and poetic dreaminess. Impeccably seconded by the orchestra, this was the take-no-prisoners performance we had all been waiting for, and we all ecstatically relished it until the very last glorious notes.

Our loud and lasting ovation earned us a lovely arrangement of the "Mélodie" from Gluck's Orfeo et Euridice, which clearly demonstrated that our pianist was just as comfortable with pensive contemplation as with heart-on-sleeve Romanticism. Then we had to reluctantly go back to our real winter world.

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