Yuri Temirkanov's tenure as Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director lasted a relatively short span, from 1999 to 2006, but it had started to take on the status of a golden age well before it ended. The Russian conductor's admirers have had to wait a long decade to see him back on the BSO podium again as music director emeritus, a wait that finally ended this week with his return for the centennial season.
On Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, Temirkanov led the orchestra in the sort of high-octane, all-Russian program that we came to expect from him back in the day, and he generated the all-cylinders-firing kind of response from the players that we came to savor. Although the BSO has welcomed lots of new faces since 2006, everyone sounded fully connected to the conductor's distinctive wavelength.
There may have been some romanticizing (or over-romanticizing) of Temirkanov's BSO years, but this fresh demonstration of musical chemistry made it easy to understand why so much nostalgia still lingers.
Temirkanov, longtime head of the globally admired St. Petersburg Philharmonic, brings an uncommon level of gravitas to the standard Russian repertoire. Thursday's performance of Tchaikovsky's fate-obsessed Symphony No. 4 had terrific impact.
The conductor gave the drama in the score extra sweep and bite, all the while burrowing into the melancholy heart of the matter. His phrasing in the tense opening movement proved especially compelling, and he drew out the bittersweetness of the andantino to poetic effect.
Amid the pizzicato bustle of the scherzo, Temirkanov's ear for inner details had the music sounding even more eventful and brilliant than usual (the cellos' lines, in particular, popped out wonderfully). The finale burst out of the gate and never let up. All the while, Temirkanov took great care with phrase-sculpting and dynamic contrasts so that nothing was taken for granted.
For the most emotional passages, the strings poured out a deep, dark tone. Brass and percussion came through in style. The woodwinds reached lyrical peaks in the second movement.
Aside from minor smudging in the brass, the orchestra also did shining work at the start of the evening, providing sumptuous support for powerhouse soloist Denis Matsuev in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.
The pianist, in an overdue visit 12 years after his last appearance with the BSO, made child's play of the score's ferocious technical demands and used the leftover energy to add welcome expressive nuance. There was an organic, inevitable quality to Matsuev's playing, which was warm-hearted without turning sentimental.
Through it all, seamless partnering from Temirkanov paid handsome dividends. He deftly maintained balances (OK, a few times Matsuev managed to drown out the whole orchestra), and he helped underline the concerto's soulful core.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.