At the end of his novel Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol famously compared Russia to a troika horse-drawn sleigh that speeds recklessly onwards; it stops for nothing, and all must give way before it or be trampled underfoot. Last night, the troika took the form of the St Petersburg Philharmonic, with conductor Vassily Sinaisky driving at full tilt through Hall One of Sage Gateshead in a programme of heavyweight Tchaikovsky favourites, with Prokofiev in between to give a breath of fresh air.

Vassily Sinaisky © Marco Borggreve
Vassily Sinaisky
© Marco Borggreve

A set of extracts from Swan Lake took the structure of the standard suite published as Tchaikovsky’s Op.20a, but with more of the national dances from the ball added, giving a quick tour of Europe as seen through Russian eyes. The luxurious sound of the St Petersburg strings was evident from the first shimmering entry of the violins, although the oboe solo was a little thin. The dances – Hungarian, Spanish, Italian and Polish – were lively and full of colour: slow, pounding brass in the Czardas, crisp woodwind passages in the Spanish to match the accompanying castanets, and a sweet, breezy trumpet solo for the Neapolitan. Returning home from this continental tour, the St Petersburg Philharmonic unleashed full-on Russian passion for the music from the final act, with every emotional volume knob turned up to the maximum; it was fast, loud and utterly overwhelming, and no doubt exactly what the full house at Sage Gateshead had come for.

The bracing harmonic and rhythmic boldness of Prokofiev’s short Piano concerto no. 1 in D flat major was a nice foil to the two romantic Tchaikovsky works. Soloist Freddy Kempf attacked the opening with great vigour, but his ferocious energy didn’t get in the way of his deliciously crisp articulation through the most complex passages, although his angularity wasn’t matched by the strings, who remained rooted in their silky-smooth Tchaikovsky mode. More problematic was that Kempf and the orchestra never really locked together, possibly because Vassily Sinaisky had had to step in for the St Petersburgers’ chief conductor Yuri Temirkanov at short notice. The best playing in this concerto came in the serenity of the slow movement, with its mysterious and magical strings and a sumptuous muted trumpet solo. Kempf’s encore, a jazzy Intermezzo by the Ukrainian composer Nikolai Kapustin was a nice postscript.

The orchestra returned to Tchaikovsky after the interval and his great exploration of fate that is his Fifth Symphony. Again, the emotion was cranked up, leaving no ambiguity in the symphonic journey from despair to proud acceptance. Andrei Laukhin’s opening clarinet solo was dark and smoky, each phrase dying away in introspection, before the tempo picked up: the main thrust throughout this performance was fast and passionate, allowing Sinaisky to engineer big build-ups and release of tension. The ten double basses, in standard Russian configuration on risers behind the first violins, had made their presence felt throughout the concert, but it was in this symphony that they really came into their own, from their first rumblings behind the clarinet solo, and even more so when they brought the first movement to its doom-laden close.

The second movement begins with another fine solo, with lyrical sweetness from principal horn Igor Karzov, set against the darkest of string sounds. Throughout this movement, the woodwind counter-melodies wound beautifully around the strings, until the brutal brass interruptions with the fate motif, that eventually subdued the orchestra into a stunned silence: none can stand in the way of this, and the final clarinet gesture was a white flag of surrender against the onslaught of fate.

As in the Prokofiev, there were disagreements between conductor and orchestra regarding tempo, but the dance of third movement was a graceful whirl that mirrored the earlier Swan Lake waltz. The string statement of the fate motif in the major key at the beginning of the finale was broad and full of pride, the brass pulling everything up to create space for an explosion into the final theme: the horses of the metaphorical troika had been champing at the bit and were now pounding through the hall, making me feel as if I was being crushed under their hooves. Even by the usual standards of this symphony – and of Russian orchestras – this was very loud, very fast and utterly exhausting, with the sort of intensity that surely no-one can withstand for very long, although the impassive faces of most of the musicians suggested that this is simply what they do. After the false ending, the music broadened again, and the little trumpet interjections were expressions of sheer joy.

To contrast Tchaikovksy’s intimate portrait of one man’s battle with fate, the St Petersburgers’ encore offered an expansive landscape as a programmed encore. Mussogsky’s “Dawn on the Moscow River” from his opera Khovanshchina was calm and sparkling with light, an idealisation of a fairytale Russia.


****1