St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra

St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra

Philharmonic Orchestra

• Founded 1882


The orchestra Lenin's henchmen renamed the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1921 (until 1991, when it once more became the St. Petersburg Philharmonic) was originally founded in 1882 as the Winter Capital's Imperial Orchestra. During the 1917 October Revolution it became a state orchestra by decree, only to be absorbed a year later by the upstart Petrograd Philharmonic, conducted by Sergey Koussevitzky from Moscow. The newly proletarian Philharmonic, though, continued playing in the Large Hall built as a Boyars' Assembly in 1830, which the orchestra still calls home. When Koussevitzky left in 1920 -- for Paris first, then Boston (1924 - 1949) -- Emil Cooper followed for three seasons. But he, too, left the U.S.S.R., to conduct at the pre-Depression, Insull-funded Chicago Civic Opera, and later at the New York Metropolitan (1944 - 1950).

Interim guest conductors included the Russo-British Albert Coates and Poland's Grzegorz Fitelberg, until in 1926 Nikolai Malko transferred from the Mariinsky (formerly Imperial) Opera to the Philharmonic as music director. Before he departed in 1929 (for Copenhagen, then Chicago, finally settling in Sydney, Australia), Malko premiered the first three symphonies by Shostakovich. Next, Aleksandr Gauk commuted from Moscow until Fritz Stiedry fled eastward in 1933 from Nazi Germany. However, because of Stalin's escalating purges, he resigned his directorship in 1937 (to conduct the New Friends of Music Orchestra in New York City, and later on the Met Opera's Wagner repertory). Stiedry introduced Shostakovich as piano soloist in his first concerto, and prepared the Fourth Symphony in 1936, only to have the terrified composer withdraw it after Stalin denounced his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Stiedry's legendary successor was 35-year-old Yevgeny Mravinsky, a pupil of Malko and Gauk, who came from the Kirov Opera and Ballet (the Mariinsky renamed). Having won an All-Union Conductors' Competition, he was appointed music director of the Philharmonic in 1938. But already they had premiered (and recorded) Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in November 1937, and during the next 24 years introduced Nos. 6, 8, 9, 10, and 12. With Mravinsky the orchestra also premiered Shostakovich's first concertos for violin and cello, and in 1947 Sergey Prokofiev's war-scarred Sixth Symphony.

Before cardiac illness in 1988 forced Mravinsky's retirement after 49 years as music director, he made Leningrad's orchestra the best as well as oldest in the U.S.S.R. Its tonal transparency and power were inimitable, with virtuosic strings (even at Le Mans speeds), French-sounding horns and trombones, and woodland reeds. But not until their first transatlantic tour in 1960 did the West hear the richness of sound, range of dynamics, and singleness of purpose matched only by the Amsterdam, Vienna Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestras. Mravinsky's distinguished associates included Kurt Sanderling (1941 - 1960), Arvids Jansons (1948 - 1961), and the latter's son Mariss (associate in 1973, later principal conductor in 1985, a post he held until 1999, under Mravinsky's successor, Yuri Temirkanov). Between father Jansons and son Jansons, Mravinsky was notably aided by Eduard Serov and Igor Blazhkov.

The Leningrad Philharmonic's repertory was both wide and catholic, ranging from Bach through Stravinsky's Agon, although Russian music from Glinka onward was considered their special province. Mravinsky stopped making studio recordings in 1961 -- a total of 54 -- but 48 more were taped during concerts. To the end, audiences marveled at the swiftness of his interpretations, controversially so in the Tchaikovsky symphonies. Under the more easygoing, at times laid-back Temirkanov, the orchestra forfeited a measure of its former lung power and luster, especially after the chaotic national transition of 1991. In 2006-2007 the orchestra made a tour of Russia, its first in many years. It also continues to record on its own label and give the Russian premieres of major works, such as Penderecki's Polish Requiem, in the new century.