Thursday, November 24, 2005

From Russia, with teddy bear

The St Petersburg Philharmonic concert last night was quite an event. A huge orchestra crammed on to the Barbican platform - not for these guys those trendy slimmed-down bands - and, presiding over them, the modest yet magnetic figure of Yuri Temirkanov, whose combination of authority, focus, musical fidelity and genuine feeling makes him one of the few maestri whom most musicians not only respect but also love.

The tone blew me off my chair in seconds. Oh, those strings. To die for... Brahms 2, in the second half, was a chance for a serious wallow: those violas! Those cellos! Oh yes, yes, YES! But the first piece in the programme was a highlight in itself. The Suite from Prokofiev's Cinderella doesn't hit the concert hall often enough - I've only heard it live before at the ballet (admittedly, the Ugly Sisters bits aren't the same without Frederick Ashton) - and it has some glorious moments. The best, for me, is the striking of midnight: it's as if you are inside the mechanism of a great grotesque clock with the cogs and wheels grinding and clonking around your ears. And the greatest magic is the moment of silence when it's over and you have to surrender to the big tune that signals all is lost and pumpkindom regained.

So to our young pianist, Denis Matsuev, who was the soloist for the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody. Apparently he's 30, but he looks like a 14-year-old teddy bear in a penguin suit who wants, when he grows up, to be Sokolov. I swung both ways, listening. Some of it I loved; some I admired; some had my eyes and ears on stalks; some I hated. His tone in the quieter parts is truly beautiful: loving phrasing for the famous tune, the clearest, most gleaming sound and beautifully limpid phrasing for the fast solo variation that I've come across; but he's not above thumping the hell out of the piano at the top end of the spectrum (Sokolov's tone, please note, remains rich and glorious even at FFFFF). Sometimes he let things run away with him: the excitement becomes too extreme, he overheats and the sound, and concept, become less controlled and more questionable than they should. But my attention was absolutely with him the whole way, which is more than I can say about Lugansky's performance of the same piece last year (=bored silly). I'm convinced, too, that there was a sense of striving for something beyond the ordinary, a visceral excitement, hints of a far-seeing beauty that one hopes he'll develop over the years. His encore was breathtaking: a virtuoso fantasy on The Barber of Seville, dizzyingly fast, light as a feather, spot-on timing, the whole thing assured as a mountaineer at the summit of Everest. The hall went bananas. The friend I was with, incidentally, absolutely hated his playing - "He's slick, he plays fast, so what?!"

But I feel this was more than just another teddy bear's picnic - though Matsuev will probably be dining out on his success with the audience for years to come. The place was full of music-biz bigwigs cheering him to the rafters. Like him, loathe him or both, I think he'll be back.

UPDATE, FRIDAY 25TH NOV: Here's Richard Morrison's review from The Times. Seems like he doesn't share my taste for yummy string tone. He's right about the fluffed horns and missing flute phrase in the Brahms, but frankly I didn't think it was worth mentioning those because a) find me a horn section these days that DOESN'T fluff anything, b) the band was probably in the midst of tour-funk knackeredness. His comments about Matsuev are pretty interesting.

MORE, TUESDAY 29TH NOV: Here's Erica Jeal's review from The Guardian.