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Impish devil plays its part in Russia's best band

I was recently surprised when a statement, made in either a London broadsheet or a specialist trade magazine, hailed the Mariinsky Orchestra as the best in the world.

Is it? I've heard them live and on record, and on their night they are fabulous. But the best in the world? What does that say about Sir Simon Rattle's little outfit in Berlin, or any one of numerous other orchestras throughout the world, from Cleveland to wherever?

I suspect a bit of conflation here. I wonder if someone who believes the Mariinsky to be the best in the world has the image in mind of Valery Gergiev, the orchestra's indefatigable conductor and artistic and general director, who seems to have cult status in many people's eyes. He moves in the highest reaches of Russian society and is massively influential.

But I'm not always convinced by the musical outcome he secures from his orchestra, or indeed his own perception of how a musical work should go. It's only about a month since I reviewed the latest recording from these forces, on their own Mariinsky label, a performance of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, which I found quite underwhelming. I've revisited it, but still find it alarmingly low on voltage. Reviewing the CD last month, I said the orchestra was "one of the best in the world". And I would go no further than that: there are just too many good orchestras and great teams out there now.

In the autumn I heard another version of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony at the Usher Hall, this one from the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, which proved to be a very fine band.

The bottom line, and people like me have to be constantly alert to it, is that, unless we're merely in the business of counting wrong notes, we have to factor in issues of taste and personal preference, or even prejudice. We all have blind spots. Whatever it is, for example, that conductor Andris Nelsons and his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra have that so electrifies their audiences, it completely eludes me. Their own recent recording of the Leningrad Symphony left me cold. The same applies to concert audiences: I know a guy who would walk through fire to hear the London Symphony Orchestra, which he calls "the best in the world". Many would agree. I'd rather hear the Philharmonia Orchestra, my favourite London band, any day: less gloss, more heart.

And when it comes to Russian orchestras, like anyone I have my own favourite. And it isn't the Mariinsky; or the Bolshoi; or the St Petersburg Symphony. It's the orchestra that, during the Soviet era, was a flagship of the USSR, a majestic liner of a symphony orchestra. I refer to the St Petersburg Philharmonic. Moreover, I refer to the St Petersburg Phil and its last two music directors: the late Yvgeny Mravinsky, who fashioned the orchestra into one of the world's great ensembles, and current incumbent, Yuri Temirkanov, in post since Mravinsky's death in the 1980s.

Temirkamov and the orchestra we have come to know in Scotland, through various visits. The first time I saw him he was guest conducting the now-RSNO, and it was one of the most exciting nights of my career. About 20 years later, I met Temirkanov in Baltimore when he was music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. That was a thrill. There's an impish wee devil in the man, who encouraged me to join him in flouting the organisation's smoking ban by lighting up a Marlboro with him. "You must," he insisted. He's a great man; I obeyed.

Anyway, the team is still around. And they have released this week two CD recordings from live performances recorded in their own hall: Shostakovich's Fifth and one of the most astonishing performances of Dvorak's New World Symphony that I have ever experienced. Both will be reviewed in the Sunday Herald. I urge you to seek them out. They are on the French label Mirare.

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