Sunday, February 6, 2022

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

3 p.m., low tide. Outside, rain clouds dissipated, a sharp wind coming off the Thames. Within, a matinee of popular favourites playing to a good house, Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Alexandre Kantorow in casual blacks, the bars doing good business.

Boléro and its colour tapestries can be an exposing quarter-of-an-hour. Confounding expectations, this wasn’t the tidiest of performances – rhythmically a tad thrown away in places, not all the entries spot-on, the culminating tutti suffering somewhat in the dry acoustic. Placing the snare-drum before the podium (rather than audience), while not an unfamiliar positioning, was for a while to the instrument’s disadvantage. Given the extremely recessed dynamic (degrees below pianissimo), why not some discreet microphoning I wondered sacrilegiously? Rouvali’s elegantly curvaceous armography, no baton, made up for the absence of physical dance. Ida Rubinstein, Paris 1928, would have approved.

Kantorow, French winner of the 2019 Tchaikovsky Competition, opted for a curiously subdued reading of Saint-Saëns’s G-minor Concerto, seemingly more concerned with shaping, accenting and prolonging detail than projection or any sense of involvement with the orchestra (scarcely a look in Rouvali’s direction). He can purl his scales and toss off his double-notes with the best. But full-throttle was missing, the octave passages rarely rang home, and pulse/ensemble in the Bachian first movement was uneasy. Temperamentally it all felt a bit dark and tense, if not in places eccentric. That mood carried on into his encore – the first of Brahms’s Opus 10 Ballades – though here the slumbering tempo and feigned Russification convinced more readily. Applause was polite.

Sitting in the RFH back in the seventies I remember Tjeknavorian and the Philharmonia blaze through Scheherazade like a tornado from the Caucasus. In 2013 Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic conjured something similar in Annecy, his Sultan imposingly grand, his Scheherazade sensually entwining. Hands and baton harnessed but expressively independent, engaged with his players, Rouvali journeyed Rimsky’s world from a cooler perspective, his fires burning under a northern aurora. Linking the first two movements, he focussed on rhythm, melody and changing instrumental timbres as tools of variation, crafting a landscape freed of garishness, helped in no small measure by his woodwind principals and silken-toned leader, Benjamin Marquise Gilmore. Little touches caught the attention: the urgently accented finishes of Heidi Krutzen’s opening and closing harp entries (contrasting Temirkanov’s slower pleading); the articulated drags of the timpani in ‘The Tale of the Kalendar Prince’; the long silence at the end, Rouvali stooped in theatrical profile – aftermath blurring into memory.

5 o’clock, sunset, a waxing moon half-way across the sky.

Yuri Temirkanov, 83, has stepped down as music director of the St Petersburg Philharmonic, a position he has held since 1988.