Sergei Redkin, Yuri Temirkanov / Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Rimsky-Korsakov / Rachmaninoff / Tchaikovsky
KKL, Lucerne Festival, 2018-09-04
the 18th symphony concert in this year’s Lucerne Festival brought an encounter with a rare guest, Russia’s oldest symphony orchestra, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, which goes back to the year 1882. The orchestra has worked with a number of very prominent conductors. Some highlights:
- 1917 – 1920: Serge Koussevitzky (1874 – 1951)
- 1930 – 1934: Aleksandr Gauk (1893 – 1963)
- 1938 – 1988: Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903 – 1988)
- since 1988: Yuri Temirkanov (*1938)
In this concert, the orchestra played under the direction of its Chief Conductor, maestro Yuri Khatuevich Temirkanov (Ю́рий Хату́евич Темирка́нов) who will soon turn 80. He also has been conducting the orchestra for 30 years. For the soloist in this concert, the pianist Sergei Redkin (*1991, see also Wikipedia), see also below.
The concert not only featured Russian musicians exclusively, but also an (almost) all-Russian program:
- Rimsky-Korsakov: “The Three Miracles” from the Opera “The Tale of Tsar Saltan”, op.57
- Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.18
- Encore — Rachmaninoff: No.1 from Études-Tableaux, op.39
- Encore — Rachmaninoff: No.1 from Études-Tableaux, op.39
- Tchaikovsky: Suite from the Ballet “The Nutcracker,” op.71 (arr. Temirkanov)
The orchestra is an ensemble of very respectable size. It filled the podium in Lucerne’s KKL (Culture and Convention Center Lucerne), from left to right: violin 1 — cello — viola — violin 2 (“antiphonal setup”), with an impressive group of 10 double basses in the rear left. Compared to the “modern” setup (violins — viola — cello, or violins — cello — viola), this configuration has advantages (improved acoustic balance, better insight into dialogs between the two violin voices). At the same time, the antiphonal setup does not help the coordination between the two violin voices, i.e., coordination may be more challenging.
The venue was sold very well, my seat was #18 in row #21 in the parquet, acoustically excellent, well-balanced with respect to the orchestra.
Rimsky-Korsakov: “The Three Miracles” from the Opera “The Tale of Tsar Saltan”, op.57
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908) composed his Opera “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” (Сказка о царе Салтане), op.57 in the years 1899 and 1900. It’s an opera with a prologue and four acts (seven scenes). There are four prominent orchestral pieces in the opera; the most well-known among these is “The Flight of the bumblebee“, from Act III of the opera. In 1903, the composer collected the other three orchestral pieces in his Suite from the Opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Op.57 (1903). All movements are introductions to an act or a tableau:
- Act I: “The Tsar’s Departure and Farewell”
- Act II: “The Tsaritsa and Her Son Afloat in the Barrel”
- Tableau 2 from Act IV: “The Three Miracles” («Три чуда»)
Among these, the last one, “The Three Miracles”, the introduction to the final scene in Act IV, served as overture.
The introductory trumpet fanfare (the opening in each of the movements of the suite, apparently some kind of idée fixe or Leitmotif for the opera) makes this piece an ideal opening for a concert: a call for attention. In a Moderato, the music rapidly builds up to a first climax, halts, then starts in a new tempo (Andante). Frequent changes in tempo follow—each associated with a change in the (imagined) “scenery”. These require the orchestra to adjust to a new style and temperament every now and then.
Yuri Temirkanov was conducting with rounded, economical movements (though later in the concert, he certainly also bade big gestures). Here he seemed to rely completely on the routine and experience of the orchestra, the ensemble’s self-organization, to some degree. The coordination within the orchestra was amazing, especially considering that one could merely guess or estimate the timing of the beats from the maestro’s movements (at least as seen from the audience). Interestingly, this even functioned without obvious assistance or intervention by the concertmaster or other first desks.
The orchestra also didn’t give the impression of presenting “mere show”. Rather, Temirkanov focused on phrasing, on the overall, dramatic development. The performance seemed not to aim for extra-sharp perfection, for the ultimate precision. It could also have been that the musicians needed a few minutes to adjust to the environment, after traveling here? A little hint in this direction: an inadvertent, (minor) premature entry in the first general rest. This, and maybe the minor, initial intonation issues with the trumpets, were the only (negligible) mishaps in this performance. Overall, the orchestra delivered an impressive demonstration of its sound characteristics, its vivid soundscape: its “business card”!
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.18
The Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.18 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) doesn’t require an introduction. It is one of the most well-known, most popular works of its genre, for the entire late-romantic period and beyond. Rachmaninoff, who also premiered the concerto, composed it at the turn of the century, 1900/1901. There are three movements:
- Adagio sostenuto – Più animato – Tempo I
- Allegro scherzando
The Soloist: Sergei Redkin
Sergei Redkin (Сергей Редькин, *1991, see also Wikipedia) is a Russian pianist who grew up in Krasnoyarsk, where he also received his first musical education. While still in Krasnoyarsk, he already took lessons at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. Starting in 2009, studies piano and composition at the St Petersburg State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire, and in 2011 also at the Lake Como International Piano Academy.
Redkin’s career received boosts when he won competitions in Poland (2010, 3rd prize), in Helsinki (2012, 1st prize), at the 6th International Prokofiev competition in Saint Petersburg (2013, 1st prize), at the International Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow (2015, 3rd prize ex aequo), and in Bad Kissingen (Kissinger Sommer / Kissinger Klavierolymp 2017, 2nd prize). In 2017, Sergei Redkin had already been performing at the Lucerne Festival, with the Piano Concerto No.4 in B♭ major, op.53, for the left hand, and Piano Concerto No.5 in G major, op.55, by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953).
As the score demands, Sergei Redkin started the initial pp all retained, almost melancholic, pensive. Of course, he then rapidly built up to the broad, rhapsodic ff arpeggiando playing (a tempo, con passione) starting in bar 9, which then accompanies the main theme in the orchestra. The tempo in the theme was very moderate, broad, elegiac in the tone, with equally broad agogic emphasis. That lasted up to the Poco più mosso (8 bars after ), where all of a sudden the tempo changed, and the pianist “took off like a rocket”. Poco (just a little), really? At that moment, the annotation (or its interpretation) almost felt like irony, or a caricature.
That, of course, was only a short episode, as the second theme with its beautiful cantilena followed. Here, Redkin played out the lyrical, elegiac aspects. He never fell into excess sweetness or romanticism, though. The lyrical segments alternated with rhapsodic playing in the more virtuosic sections. The tempo was fluent—to the point where he barely could clearly articulate the octave quaver triplets in the descant (Più vivo, prior to ).
There were moments (in rhapsodic ff segments) where the orchestra covered the solo part, even though the latter was fff. However, Sergei Redkin resisted the temptation to start hammering or otherwise overloading the capacity of the instrument. He never seemed to focus on bravura. Quite to the contrary: his fluent legato playing made the listener forget or ignore the immense challenges in Rachmaninoff’s piano part. Not only that: the listener was not aware how close the tempo was to what is technically feasible (maybe with the above exception).
Then, there was the short Maestoso (alla Marcia): very broad and majestic, indeed! This was followed by an almost sad, calming phase, featuring a beautiful, smooth horn cantilena, before the music built up towards the end. Also here, Redkin did not produce a virtuosic show: he kept focusing on the expression, on the harmonious . Overall, he emphasized the dynamic arches. And he did not neglect secondary voices amidst all the challenging artwork. And while playing, Redkin kept focusing on the keyboard. He obviously could entirely rely upon the accompaniment by Temirkanov and his orchestra. The cooperation with the orchestra was absolutely flawless, also across Rachmaninoff’s numerous tempo alterations, and through the rich agogics.
II. Adagio sostenuto – Più animato – Tempo I
Beautiful, lyrical, almost dreamy singing with rich agogics on the piano, in a dialog with cantilenas of unearthly beauty on clarinet and flute. Endless melodies, flowing in large expressive and dynamic arches, harmoniously building up to the first climax (ff allargando). Sergei Redkin’s playing remained delicate also in the Più mosso part and the short, virtuosic cadenza. However, he did not dissect the big melody lines into motifs and small fragments, rather returned to his pensive, lyrical cantilena right after the cadenza, reaching serenity and transfiguration in the final climax.
III. Allegro scherzando
The final movement followed quasi attacca. In the dramatic parts, Yuri Temirkanov and the orchestra exerted more “grip”. However, the cooperation, the coordination with the soloist remained excellent, also through dramatic segments, and at a challenging tempo. As for the solo part: the highly virtuosic first part occasionally was a tad superficial in the articulation, the details, and there were a few missed keys (e.g., in the challenging solo at  and ).
Nevertheless, Sergei Redkin’s technical abilities are astounding, a prime example being the Presto cadenza. His physical reserves are impressive. He has the power for intense, expressive playing. However, power was never (or very rarely) a primary feature in his performance, and he never was pretentious in his attitude in any way. In the lyrical parts, Redkin kept listening into the piano, into the music, remained very expressive and careful in his dynamics.
Encore — Rachmaninoff: Étude-Tableau in C minor, op.39/1
One would think that after the power-draining concerto, Sergei Redkin would select a lyrical encore. Remarkably, he didn’t! Rather, he selected another challenging piece by Rachmaninoff, the Etude-Tableau in C minor (Allegro agitato), the No.1 from the 9 Études-Tableaux, op.39. That is highly virtuosic music, full of sparkling tone garlands, feverishly running by. Spontaneously (and even though the music clearly was by Rachmaninoff, hence the association has no musical background), the term “Traumes Wirren” sprung to mind (the title of No.7 from “8 Fantasiestücke“, op.12 by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856): mental associations…
Tchaikovsky: A Suite from the Ballet “The Nutcracker,” op.71 (arr. Temirkanov)
Yuri Temirkanov wanted to present a purely Russian program, and at the same time, he aimed at following the general theme, “Childhood” of this year’s Lucerne Festival. So, on top of the “fairy tale link” in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opening piece, he turned to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) and his ballet music to “The Nutcracker”, op.71, which premiered 1892. However, rather than resorting to Tchaikovsky’s own orchestral arrangement / selection, i.e., the Suite “The Nutcracker”, op.71a, Temirkanov chose his own selection from act II of the popular ballet. The selection consisted of major parts of Act II (Tableau III):
- No.10, Scene “The Magic Castle in the Land of Sweets” (Сцена, Andante)
- No.11, Scene “Clara and Nutcracker Prince” (Сцена, Andante con moto – Moderato – Allegro agitato – Poco più allegro – Tempo precedente)
- No.12, Divertissement (Дивертисмент):
- Le chocolat. Danse espagnole (Шоколад, Allegro brillante)
- Le thé. Danse chinoise (Чай, Allegro moderato)
- Trépak. Danse russe (Трепак, Tempo di Trepak. Molto vivace)
- Les mirlitons (Танец пастушков, Andantino)
- No.13, Valse des fleurs (Вальс цветов, Tempo di Valse)
- No.14, Pas de deux (Па-де-дё):
- Variation II: Danse de la fée-dragée (Танец Феи Драже, Andante ma non troppo – Presto)
- Intrada: La Fée-Dragée et le Prince Orgeat (Танец принца Оршада и Феи Драже, Andante maestoso)
The missing parts were
- two sections in the Divertissement:
- Le café. Danse arabe / Кофе, and
- “Mother Ginger and the Polichinelles” / Полишинели)
- two sections in the Pas de deux:
- Variation I: Tarantelle / Тарантелла
- Coda / Кода
- No.15 (“Final Waltz and Apotheosis” / Финальный вальс и Апофеоз).
As this music is associated with Christmas time, that program choice may seem questionable. However, this was the “naked music”, without the ballet—and so, it all depended how much of the “sugary Xmas sweetness” transpired through the performance. Certainly, Yuri Temirkanov was aware of the dangers of this selection:
- “The Magic Castle in the Land of Sweets”: A moderated, yet festive opening, building up emphasis, not sweetness. In this environment, even the celesta did not remind of Xmas scenes. The next number followed attacca:
- “Clara and Nutcracker Prince”: The orchestra lives in this music, livened up with it—and the music (needless to say) was unproblematic, colorful, and it must have felt familiar (in tone and character, at least) to everybody in the audience.
- Divertissement: Also this followed quasi attacca. The performance wasn’t mere show—this is the orchestra’s home turf! The ensemble kept adding colors, drive, dance rhythm: a waltz with Spanish allusions in Le chocolat, lightness and joy in Le thé, drive, momentum and fun in the Trépak, and finally playful contemplation (with a short, more earnest intermezzo) in the popular Les mirlitons.
- Valse des fleurs: One of Tchaikovsky’s most popular pieces, ever—a little too well-known, maybe. Sure, it is light, light-hearted music, but the orchestra didn’t play it just single-handedly!
- Pas de deux: the most peculiar piece and atmosphere with its extensive celesta part—this sure must have been part of Temirkanov’s selection!
My only reservation about the second part of the concert is with the conclusion, the Intrada: La Fée-Dragée et le Prince Orgeat. This originally is designed as the opening piece in the Pas de deux. The problem was that it starts its own, slow build-up, and as such, it defeated the dramaturgy that evolved in the preceding selection (all of which otherwise made sense). So, in the first part, the performance seemed to lose momentum, which wasn’t the fault of the musicians, but comes from the way this Intrada is built. It does, however, evolve into a glorious, majestic, “patriotic” ending, which had the desired effect on the audience.
The Tchaikovsky performance by Yuri Temirkanov and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra perhaps didn’t offer the ultimate in precision and orchestral virtuosity. However, it certainly transpired the spirit, the atmosphere, and the momentum in this music. It offered the colors, the national character in the ballet, and Temirkanov diligently avoided excesses in sweetness, as well as in drama and emphasis: what more could one wish for? An authentic performance, no doubt.
Encore — Elgar: Salut d’amour, op.12
The orchestral encore—was there really a need to add something after the three Russian composers?—was the all too well-known Salut d’amour (Liebesgruß), op.12, by Sir Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934). The composer originally wrote this for violin and piano (1888), and in 1889, he conducted the orchestral version, in the first public performance. It must be one of Elgar’s most broadly known (and most played) pieces. I don’t think it’s nearly one of his best. Frankly: after the other works in this concert, it felt a bit shallow, if not flat—however, one should not judge encores too severely…
For this concert I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.