The only Russian musicians we tend to hear in UK concert halls these days are, for obvious reasons, the ones that aren’t based in Russia. The fact that pianist Denis Kozhukhin was available a late stand-in pianist for this weekend’s Royal Scottish National Orchestra concerts suggests that he must be one of them, and that was a great thing because he was a first-rate soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. His playing was a focused wave of energy that shot a bolt of lightning through Grieg’s music.

Denis Kozhukhin and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
© Jessica Cowley

Any time I’ve heard Kozhukhin before, it has been the dynamism and energy of his playing that impressed me most, so I was expecting a reading of the concerto that would shake the foundations and reinforce the piece’s muscularity. Not a bit of it! The keynote of Kozhukhin’s playing was its fluidity and lyricism, something apparent right from the opening tumble which sounded restrained and understated, leading into a first theme that was smooth and beguiling, not craggy or intimidating. In this he chimed perfectly with the orchestral sound coming from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and conductor Jonathon Heyward, sound that was as beautiful as it was amenable, phrased as though to illuminate Grieg’s music delicately, never forcefully or garishly.

Muscular power did enter Kozhukhin’s playing, but not until the first movement’s cadenza, and even then it was slow in coming. Not until the big double octaves did it finally feel as though the lion’s cage had been unbolted, and this gave a foretaste of the thunderous power with which he would finish the finale, a movement that Heyward wound up tightly but then released in its gloriously expansive slower sections. In between these two outcrops came a slow movement blessed with rosy, soft-hued strings, a glowing solo horn and a blend with the piano that had been beautifully achieved. If only all late stand-ins were as successful!

Jonathon Heyward conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
© Jessica Cowley

But Kozhukhin wasn’t the only star on the stage. Heyward achieved a real rapport with the RSNO musicians, something that came through in every phrase of an electric performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Everyone says that rhythm is central to this symphony, but Heyward actually seemed to understand it, and the fast sections of the first and third movements had a tremendous kick to them. This never felt heavy, though: the sound was always light on its feet and full of energy; joy, even. The Allegretto was phrased lyrically, finding the beauty behind the minor key darkness, and the finale set off at a tremendous, adrenaline-inducing lick. In the event it was just a tiny shade too ambitious – the ensemble and phrasing didn’t quite hang together in the face of such speed – but Heyward and the orhcestra should be saluted for aiming high rather than playing it safe.

Next to all this elemental energy, Sir James MacMillan’s Larghetto for Orchestra was like spiritual balm. It’s an orchestral arrangement of his choral Miserere of 2009, and you repeatedly hear the plainchant elements being sung out by solo winds and brass. A choir of divided cellos sang out the main theme of penitence before passing it around the orchestra, while a rich brass chorale hinted at glory beyond. This was MacMillan’s music at its most approachable: cinematic, flowing and very beautiful.

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