Rousing program from Russians
The St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra, which under principal guest conductor Vladimir Lande performed at Symphony Hall Wednesday, is not the august St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Philharmonic Orchestra, which traces its history back to 1882.
It’s not even the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, which was founded in 1931. Just 44 years old this year, the SPSASO has relatively little in the way of a touring and recording pedigree. Nonetheless, those who’ve heard the National Philharmonic of Russia in Symphony Hall over the past few years know that even no-name Russian orchestras can deliver the goods. And this one did its home city and country proud. Too bad only a few hundred concertgoers were there to enjoy it.
The all-Slavic program opened with a novelty, Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1949 “Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes,’’ and continued with more familiar fare, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with Chinese soloist Xiayin Wang, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Weinberg’s “Rhapsody’’ thrust us at once into a deep forest of cellos and basses (both sections magnificent throughout the evening); then the themes emerged in the winds and brass, sounding as much Jewish (was that a khosidl?) as Moldavian. The piece exploded into bouts of frenetic string playing - no problem for these strings - and then some splashy movie music.
The Prokofiev was less successful. Wang doesn’t want for technique, and there were melting moments in the nocturne-like sections of the slow movement that conjured Rachmaninoff. But she also banged a lot, and some of her passagework was blurry. She wasn’t helped by the orchestra, which was too loud (a shrill piccolo, for one) and lacked both finesse and wit - what happened to the sly gavotte that opens the slow movement?
Lande’s Tchaikovsky was painted in similar strokes: bold, brash, and at times bombastic. It was also the fastest Fifth I’ve ever heard, barely 40 minutes. The finale sounded more like a confident proletariat striding forward into their shiny new future than the composer’s anguished struggle to achieve E major.
But the passion of the Andante cantabile recalled Serge Koussevitzky’s legendary 1944 BSO recording, with a limpid, russet-colored opening horn aria and luscious solos from oboe and bassoon. A quick listen afterward to the orchestra’s just-released recording of this symphony (on Canada’s Marquis label) confirmed my good impression of the playing.
The one encore was announced by Lande as “I think you will recognize it.’’ We certainly should have: It was Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide’’ Overture, a gay, glittering tribute to the orchestra’s American tour - and perhaps to the Huntington Theatre Company production of Bernstein’s musical satire that was playing across the street.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.