S&H Concert Review

The Enigma of Yuri Temirkanov and the Philadelphia Shostakovich Tradition (R M-B)

In an era allegedly short on podium magicians is there any conductor more under-appreciated than Yuri Temirkanov? That I must ask the first question perhaps stems from a second: is there any conductor more unpredictable that Temirkanov? The Russian maestro at times seems like the box of chocolates Forrest Gump's mother compares to life: you never know what you're going to get. Slightly more predictable, but perhaps equally under-appreciated, is the Philadelphia Orchestra performing the music of Shostakovich.

I'm not sure exactly what accounts for the variability in Temirkanov's output, nor why he stands in the shadows of his compatriots, Jansons and Gergiev. He certainly does not court the press like the other two and has yet to master the intricacies of the photogenic Gregorian stubble (is it really possible for a man to be always precisely the same degree of unshaven without calculation?). At the beginning of December Philadelphia had him at the top of his game, having entrusted him -- finally -- with one of the huge Shostakovich symphonies that he leads like few other directors on this planet.

Perhaps one source of Temirkanov's under-appreciation is his sheer ubiquity --racing from St Petersburg to Philadelphia, Copenhagen to... everyplace. Perhaps if he took more time off his concentration might improve, as it is clear his mind wanders in some performances. In the 1990s, he developed a disturbing nervous tick of glancing over his shoulder during both rehearsals and performances, but this week he seemed more confident and secure, so this mannerism vanished. In my time in Philadelphia I've heard him produce an absolutely lethargic Prokofiev 5th followed the next year by one of the most utterly thrilling renditions of the same piece with the Curtis Symphony; the students of that orchestra were frightfully nervous because every rehearsal had been unlike its predecessor. Temirkanov was then able to exploit the tension of the moment to get them to produce an utterly huge, elemental sound utterly unlike he got from their teachers the year before. Watching him rehearse other works at Curtis has always been fascinating; not speaking any English beyond a few numbers in the score he communicates volumes to its young musicians. Over the past decade Temirkanov has for some strange reason not led the major Shostakovich works in Philadelphia (I've had the sense they have been left to conductors who were more obvious candidates to succeed Sawallisch), and his work this month demonstrated how wrong that has been.

After wasting the first part of the program on the Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations (please forgive me, but it was the third straight week of such music), the Philadelphians got down to business with the 7th Symphony, the Leningrad. It was worth both the short term and the long term wait. Some conductors might have used the work to beat us over the head with the work's brutality, as if to scream, 'See, Volkov was right!' Temirkanov was more determined to play the work straight, which is certainly quite enough (at least); there are times when sobriety can be more devastating than a Dionysian overstatement. This is certainly not the place to rehearse the arguments over Testimony but Temirkanov was, firstly, Mravinsky's assistant at a pivotal time in Shostakovich's career and, secondly, had his own right to travel revoked when HIS career was just blossoming. He has also recently gone on record with the poet of Babi Yar that Volkov did get it right. Temirkanov does not hold press conferences about the controversy, but this is clearly a man with a deep, viscerally personal connection to Shostakovich's music. This is also a man with a deep, instinctive connection to the traditions of the Philadelphia Orchestra; once when he was touring with the PO during the Muti era the musicians were quoted as marveling about how 'the Sound' returned under him.

Temirkanov's Leningrad was a reading of extraordinarily vital music making. This was, oddly enough, the second time he had led the Philadelphians in this work, the first having been in 1977, and that was the PO's first following the historic performance under Ormandy in 1942. While this is hardly a work that slides off an orchestra's fingers with the standard minimal rehearsal, still, with a conductor the musicians clearly revere, rehearsal can seem superfluous. It is simply wondrous watching Temirkanov at times during the first movement march, barely moving save for his beating batonless hand, while still holding together (albeit not immaculately) one of the largest orchestrations in the repertoire with utter clarity. Particularly striking was the utter stillness during the transition from allegro to march and then during the march itself the revelation of the inner syncopating voices that disrupt the march and are eventually overwhelmed by it (political commentary seeming superfluous). Again, not overplaying the music's extremes, Temirkanov laid bare the painful contrasts between the brief moments of extraordinary beauty that are suddenly overwhelmed by brutality. While control of the ensemble could have been a bit tighter in the first movement, the musicians were clearly at one with the conductor; I've rarely seen such furious bowing as occurred in the last movement. The reading's centre seemed to be the threnody of the third movement, with moments of fragile transparency when it strangely evoked the 5th movement of the Mahler 10th. Tempos on the whole were slightly quick, with the performance as a whole about three minutes faster than his BMG recording.

While one can at times take a great orchestra for granted, the sheer virtuosity of the ensemble that week was in evidence, baring no weaknesses across sections. This singular feeling for Shostakovich's music surely arises from the PO's long work with the composer's music, a tradition that is arguably the longest and most extensive of any orchestra in the world. Indeed, the Shostakovich tradition has been one of the most remarkable experiences I have had here; I cannot say any other of the ones I have known well have any comparable depth of relationship. Leopold Stokowski conducted the US premieres of the First, Third and Sixth Philadelphians. Ormandy continued this tradition with the later symphonies, most notably the first US performances of the Fourth and Fourteenth Symphonies, and the first outside the USSR of the Thirteenth, using a score Rostropovich had smuggled out on microfilm! The Orchestra's Centennial Collection of recordings includes a Sixth led by Ormandy that is hard to beat. The re-release of Ormandy's recording of the Fifteenth left me almost incredulous when I heard it last year. Sawallisch has nibbled around the periphery and now seems to be plunging in to its core. The tradition continues.

I would be very surprised if any American group has recorded more Shostakovich than Philadelphia or if in the last dozen years any group had played thirteen of the fifteen symphonies. Given that Curtis has long been a part of Shostakovich performance as well (Stokowski was, after all a founder, and a fair part of its initial staff were from St Petersburg), and the PO has stuck with the composer through the peaks and troughs of his popularity (with some diminution, as with most matters, during the Muti regime), I think I can state with some justification that the Shostakovich tradition in Philadelphia is stronger than in any place in the world, save St Petersburg. Searching for comparisons in the history of performance, I can only find one: the Concertgebouw with Mahler, which preserves an authentic performance style of Mahler's music through continuity and an in-grown culture. Similar elements are at work with Shostakovich in Philadelphia. St Petersburg justifiably lays claim to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, just as the Vienna Philharmonic does for Mahler, yet the musicians of Philadelphia and Amsterdam need not shrink from the importance of their relationships with these composers.

Working within such a coherent performance tradition allows Temirkanov some comfort - and thus freedom - and these recent performances make abundantly clear the vitality of live music making among the triangle of composer, conductor and musicians. For a few concerts at least the enigma receded. Thankfully, so did the rows of empty seats, as the audience from last year returned in large numbers (see my previous essay here), with the same inaudible level of concentration. Easily one of the most popular guests here, Temirkanov is one of the few conductors whose authority in Philadelphia attracts crowds regardless of the difficulty of the music. Under-appreciated? Maybe not here.

Robin Mitchell-Boyask

Seen&Heard is part of Music on the Web(UK) Webmaster: Len Mullenger Len@musicweb-international.com

Return to: Seen&Heard Index  

Return to: Music on the Web