Classical St Petersburg Philharmonic / Yuri Temirkanov Barbican Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Within the space of a few months London has seen a plethora of complete symphonic cycles: after the Mahler series at the Proms this summer, shortly followed by Richard Hickox's Vaughan Williams sequence with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, we have just been treated to the six Tchaikovsky symphonies in three concerts presented by Yuri Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic, again at the Barbican.

The concerts were given as part of the hall's occasional series "Great Orchestras of the World", but it must be said that this long-renowned orchestra's playing often fell some way short of that promising title.

The opening of the series was none too convincing. Tchaikovsky's First Symphony, or Winter Daydreams, is a work of great charm and burgeoning originality, but the difficulty the composer experienced in forging a symphonic style to embody his unprecedented thought processes shows in a certain formal stiffness. The playing needs to be more precisely elegant and alluring than we heard on Sunday afternoon if the effects of those rough edges are to be minimised and the symphony's strengths brought into focus.

The orchestra supported an outsize string section headed by 10 desks of first violins, and this dominated the overall sound. The effect was cumbersome in scherzando sections, where a lighter, neater attack was needed and there was often a blanket sonority that made life difficult for the wind section and even, at times, for the brass.

The picture was further complicated by the separation of the cellos and basses, which prevented the kind of deep blend often required by Tchaikovsky, although, to cite one detail, it certainly clarified the end of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, which was performed in the second concert of the series on Tuesday.

After Winter Daydreams, though, we heard the Fourth Symphony and this titanic masterpiece seemed to engage the players' hearts and minds more fully, as indeed it did the audience's. Temirkanov engineered one or two distracting moments of tempo rubato, as, for instance, in the pleadings and brusque dismissals he read into the first movement's third subject; but, for the most part, this was a taut, dramatic interpretation, tumultuous in climax, and if the famous pizzicato Scherzo suffered from the unwieldy number of strings, the finale, taken dangerously fast, triumphed expressively.

In Tuesday night's second programme, conductor and orchestra warmed to their task, and the concert closed with the best playing so far in an intense and firmly controlled reading of the Fifth Symphony. Its towering climaxes were always allowed to grow out of the symphonic argument, and if the composer's tempo marking for the first movement's second group was totally ignored, the resulting slow waltz fell neatly into place. In fact, the symphony's combination of fateful material and sheer compositional drawing was infectiously re-created.

Earlier, the Second Symphony had drawn a less keen response, with the exposed wind textures of the second movement sounding a little raw. Also, there was no excuse for cutting over 200 bars from the brilliantly resourceful finale: the climax of the development and the return of the bewitching second theme were sorely missed. One had thought that such butchery was a thing of the past.