Passion and power were the name of the game in this concert of Russian music given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the elegant baton of Vasily Petrenko. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor was famously dismissed by its dedicatee, Nikolai Rubinstein, but nevertheless it has become one of the most popular works in the repertoire. In this performance, by Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, all the feverish emotions were very much on the surface, as they should be. 

Nobuyuki Tsujii and the RPO
© Andy Paradise

A combination of phenomenal technique and commitment to its labile temperament produced very exciting results. In the long first movement, the clarity of Tsujii's finger-work and his weight of tone shone through the thick orchestral textures. His approach to the beautiful central movement was touchingly simple and direct and, in the finale, it was back to technical wizardry. Overall, this was a very persuasive account of a work that is full of good tunes but can sound overblown in less accomplished hands.

Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, composed in the dark days of 1943, is a work that doesn’t shirk from telling the terrible truths of the times it was written in and the effect it was having on the composer’s mental state. Like the Tchaikovsky concerto, it was written in the heat of the moment and has some rough edges, its brand of brutality and nihilism unmatched in his other symphonies except, perhaps, the Fourth. 

Vasily Petrenko conducts the RPO
© Andy Paradise

Petrenko didn’t hold back in his interpretation. The central climax of the first movement is one of the composer's most visceral moments and here, in the confines of the Royal Festival Hall acoustics, it was an overwhelming experience. He kept the slower passages that bookend this central outburst moving along, with the grieving cor anglais solo near its end beautifully paced and played. The two Scherzos that followed were well characterised, with the dance-like qualities of the first sounding sly, before being blown apart by another intense outburst. The cruel determination of the moto perpetuo toccata third movement was a tour de force for all the entire orchestra. The strangely ambivalent finale half-heartedly tried to introduce some major key light to the proceedings, but it soon collapsed into more violence and faded away, exhausted.

It was thrilling to experience such a focussed and clearheaded interpretation of this powerful work. The RPO were very impressive in all departments, with a clear pliable string sound, characterful woodwinds and appropriately weighty brass, bringing to mind the military aggression currently felt in Europe.