Orchestras should not be locked into playing music of their country of origin. And yet great orchestras retain a special relationship to their national music. To hear the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra play a program of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich is tantamount to a cliche. And yet that’s what they did, under the great Yuri Temirkanov, at the Kennedy Center on Monday night, thanks to Washington Performing Arts — and you’re not going to hear either of those pieces done much better.
I can’t say that the orchestra made me feel as if I were hearing either for the first time. The sense I got, rather, is that they could play it in their sleep, could effortlessly illuminate its greatness, dazzle with rich colors and springy rhythms and a kind of enveloping warmth. For freshness in Rachmaninoff’s second Piano Concerto — known even to non-music-lovers as a staple of film scores and ice-skating routines — was left to the soloist, Nikolai Lugansky, who played the virtuosic music with the softness of spring rain, falling gently on the ears instead of thundering, even in its most intricate passages. It’s not really as easy or soft as he made it sound, buoyed by the orchestra’s lush strings. He followed up with an encore, a shimmering Rachmaninoff Prelude (Op. 32, No. 12).
Temirkanov and Shostakovich and this orchestra have come through many chapters of history together. The orchestra premiered many of Shostakovich’s works, Temirkanov knew Shostakovich, and Temirkanov has led the orchestra through the end of the Soviet Union, when the music could be taken as victorious, into whatever era this may be.
Now 78, perhaps a little battered by events, with some years as the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under his belt, the conductor showed in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony that he has lost none of his mastery, even if the sounds around him are a little muted, the brass perhaps less gleaming and the familiar music perhaps less a fist shaking at the regime than a haven against the vagaries of world events.
Or is it? Temirkanov, in music he knows like the back of his hand, left the question open in a vigorous performance that brought the audience to its feet in one of the warmest, most enthusiastic ovations I’ve heard in some time. The applause was rewarded with an encore, an excerpt of Prokofiev’s “Cinderella,” wafting by like a pretty dream, an evanescent illusion.