What’s in a title? The Russian State Symphony Orchestra isn’t exactly a familiar name to UK audiences. Their official moniker provides a clue: the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov”. Yes, this is essentially Svetlanov’s old band, the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, much recorded in brazen, often caustic sound on the Soviet state label, Melodiya. Current Artistic Director Vladimir Jurowski is a familiar face in London, but at a packed Cadogan Hall, it was Principal Guest Conductor Vasily Petrenko at the helm for a Rachmaninov Second Symphony which would have had old Evgeny purring with delight.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra
© IMG Artists

There’s something special about a Russian orchestra playing Russian repertoire, like enthusiastic hosts guiding you around their home city. The RSSO sound is still weighty – punchy brass and luxuriantly rich strings – but trumpets are never coarse, oboes never acidic. Only some overbright flutes were a reminder of the Svetlanov days.

Petrenko eschewed an overture in favour of a very generous opener, the suite from Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky’s ballet music courses through the veins of these players – they’ve recently recorded both The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake under Jurowski – and it showed in an often brilliant performance. A relaxed tempo was set for the famous Waltz, with lashings of rubato, but the coda whipped up to an exciting finish. The quartet of cygnets raised a smile, Petrenko encouraging a pert waddle with little more than shoulder shrugs. Concertmaster Sergey Girshenko and cellist Paul Suss duetted in the “White Swan” pas d’action with poise and grace. The national dances dazzled – old-fashioned portamento in the Hungarian Csárdás, pouting and posturing in the Danse espagnole’s sinuous boléro rhythm. Only a few reed blemishes in the Mazurka’s clarinet-led central section briefly marred the performance; otherwise, there was plenty of swagger.

That attack carried through to Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto… at least as far as the orchestra was concerned. Barry Douglas felt more hesitant, possibly treading carefully after a false step or two in the work’s dramatic opening flourish. Douglas coaxed some gorgeous sounds, though, Rachmaninov’s glittering piano cascades never sounding brittle, and the ruminative Andante cantabile second movement was caressed and shaped lyrically.  But all the bite was coming from Petrenko and the orchestra, especially in the Allegro vivace finale.

Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

“Six and a half foot of Russian gloom,” was Stravinsky’s quip about Rachmaninov. We were plunged into that Russian gloom right from the opening bars of his Second Symphony: double bass groans, cello sighs, wistful woodwind chords. By the time the mournful cor anglais, its throbbing vibrato sobbing, led to a shiver of silvery strings, I was hooked. This was a simply superb account, full of incendiary power. The Scherzo rattled along on a hair-raising ride, the string fugue furiously dispatched.

The Adagio boasted a gorgeously ripe clarinet solo, Petrenko sculpting fluid baton sweeps, while the finale was full of vigour. This was as brooding, as melancholic, as passionate an account as you’d wish to hear. And how to follow all this excitement? With mellow Elgar, the Chanson de matin given with a dark Russian accent. Valentin Uryupin leads the remainder of this UK tour, but this orchestra in this repertoire is the real deal.