It's not hard to present Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije" as an appealing piece filled with hummable tunes. But the music's irony is more elusive, demanding more distance and fewer theatrics than it got from Yuri Temirkanov and the Leningrad Philharmonic Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
"Kije" was the name of a nonexistent soldier that appeared on an official document signed by Nicholas I. After the czar accidently approved the soldier's promotion, he was regaled with stories of Kije's adventures and eventual death in battle. Ready-made for Prokofiev's brand of grotesque humor, Kije's antics ended up in a symphonic suite; plans for a film fell through.
The sight of Temirkanov flapping his arms in mock military bravado, egging on the soloists with mischievous glee and bowing amorously to shape the cello solo in the "Romance" was not immediately discouraging. If one looked away, however, one heard something less extraordinary than what was being mimed on the podium. Temirkanov, shaping the realism of the events in Kije's life, almost made the audience forget that this person never existed and lose a grip on the music's biting absurdities.
Theatrics are almost inevitable in Tchaikovsky's "Manfred" symphony, evidence of the composer's monumental struggles with monumental forms. Overall, this piece left the audience with more of an impression of what Temirkanov gave of himself than his little indulgences here and there. The orchestra lacked full, weighty string tone, but the brass section was a powerful presence throughout.
In Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, Dmitri Alexeev carefully calculated his rhythmic jolts. Occasionally, Alexeev coarsened the rhythmic element with accents and staccatos too abrupt. During numerous breathtaking passages, he dared to subvert and even flirt with the music's typewriter-like regularity.