Tonight’s concert of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, under its music director Yuri Temirkanov, was billed as marking the 150th birthday of Gustav Mahler. They were off by a month, but no matter, I’ll take it.

I’ve said before that I enjoy hearing Russian orchestras play Mahler, because they have a distinctive sound – particularly in the winds – that captures the angst very well. And the way this particular orchestra plays, it is also easy to understand why Schostakowitsch was Mahler’s true symphonic heir.

For the first offering, Thomas Hampson joined the orchestra for an expressive Kindertotenlieder. He made quite a dashing figure in a charcoal-grey Austrian-tailored (or at least Austrian-style) suit, and proved quite a charismatic performer, up close. With the applause, I almost thought the audience (and Temirkanov) would make him sing it again. But no such luck.

As good as that was, it paled compared to what we got after the intermission. This was quite simply the best performance of Mahler’s 4th I have ever heard. Temirkanov had the mood down perfectly and the orchestra was in form. The soloist was a very young (20-something) soprano, Lyudmila Dudinova, who is one of the repertory singers at the Mariinsky. Nice sounding voice, expressive and pleasant; not yet fully matured, but worked for this piece.

The concert was in the famous Philharmonia Large Hall. Good acoustics in my seat (seventh row, near the center), but I cannot swear that is the case everywhere. Some seats were hidden behind pillars and in back of the orchestra. The room sort of looked like a synagogue with a women’s gallery upstairs. The hall was absolutely packed. That is something as well considering how tightly squeezed together the rows are, with barely any room to move in our seats. And if there were a fire in this theater, everyone would die. Even if they managed to get out of their rows, there is only one exit and extremely narrow corridors which all converge on it. What I also found strange was that, from the outside of the building, it would be impossible to know that there is a theater inside (other than a couple of small signs on the side of the building – which are next to doors that actually do not go into the theater itself but rather to the ticket office and to back stage). The building looks instead like a normal office/residential block from the mid-1800s.


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