By a strange quirk my very first concert by a major orchestra was the Leningrad Philharmonic playing Shostakovich 5 with Evgeny Mravinsky at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960. By a further coincidence it was about the same time that I first heard a very young Martha Argerich.
Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto has been one of Argerich’s signature pieces throughout her career. She first recorded it with Claudio Abbado back in the 1960s. At 75 she still plays it with all that tiger-like volatility for which she is justly famed but at the same time she now brings an added depth to moments of repose. The glassy stillness of parts of the slow movement and its perfectly calibrated ending – a suppressed shudder from the strings answered by the simplest gesture from the pianist – will undoubtedly linger long in the mind as a brief moment of perfection. The outer movements powered forward with the kind of surging momentum one experiences whilst accelerating behind the wheel of a powerful car. Argerich can match any living pianist in sheer virtuosity but she is also a particularly fine chamber musician and the pleasure of her interaction with members of the SPPO was palpable. Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s ‘Widmung’ was a welcome encore.
Shostakovich’s 5 is home territory for the St Petersburg Philharmonic, bringing to it lustrous strings with resonant cellos and double basses, powerful brass (but embedded rather than dominating) and characterful woodwinds. Next year will mark the thirtieth of Yuri Temirkanov’s reign. He has a little catching up with Mravinsky whose name was indissoluble with the Leningrad Philharmonic for half a century.
Whilst undoubtedly superbly played, Shostakovich’s Fifth poses interpretative problems that were not always solved. Least satisfactory was the first movement where that long opening paragraph requires a degree of flexibility which it did not receive here; similarly the movement’s very close, distant trumpets punctuating a devastated landscape, ice in the frozen air, was prosaic rather than terrifying. Thereafter things improved but the Scherzo’s sardonic humour might have been even better served by a slightly more relaxed tempo. Best of all was the slow movement where the glowing strings really shone; after the climax there is a moment’s pause followed by a violent throbbing on the violas and an extended wail from lower strings, highly effective here. The Finale followed attacca and was unleashed with real vehemence but the coda brings further problems. Temirkanov adopted a middle course, faster than those Soviet performances where the grindingly affirmative apotheosis used to be taken excruciatingly slowly but still considerably slower than many Western performances. It felt like falling between two stools.
There was another encore, further Prokofiev, and more ballet music, from Cinderella – the concert had started with selections from Khachaturian’s score for Spartacus (including the music used for BBCTV’s The Onedin Line) – here the moment when the Prince finds the foot which fits the slipper, magical soaring music.