“Our business is rejoicing. Our business is rejoicing.” Dmitri Shostakovich learnt when to toe the political line. After his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was denounced in Pravda as “muddle instead of music”, he hid his Fourth Symphony away in a bottom drawer and composed a Fifth which – on the surface at least – would better please Stalin and the authorities. Its première by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky was acclaimed with a half-hour ovation. Job done. But is that finale really a triumphant victory? Or was it a cryptic message of defiance?

Yuri Temirkanov © Sasha Gusov
Yuri Temirkanov
© Sasha Gusov
I heard the St Petersburg Philharmonic – in Basingstoke, of all places – on the very day it changed its title back from the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1991. There was a jubilant air among the musicians. One could sense a dark chapter of its past closing. So to hear that very orchestra play Shostakovich's “creative response to justified criticism” in the Royal Festival Hall this weekend was something rather special.

It's not just the orchestra's name that has changed. Back in 1991, the genial Yuri Temirkanov was only three years into his tenure as Chief Conductor, a post that Mravinsky, his hawk-eyed direct predecessor, had held for an astonishing fifty years. A quarter of a century on, the orchestral sound has altered. The woodwinds don't squeal as viciously, the brass isn't as abrasive, but the strings – all 62 of them – still produce the plushest, most luxuriant sound, anchored by nine double basses. With the brass denied risers, undoubtedly softening their impact, it was the strings which dominated. It may have been too manicured for those who prefer a bit more dirt under the fingernails of their Shostakovich, but it was undeniably impressive. The batonless Temirkanov summoned bombast in the first movement march and bassoons protested gruffly in the Allegretto. Muted violins and violas pined in the Largo, growing to a string climax that screamed anguish. And then that finale. No triumphalism here, but the repeated A, sawed 252 times on the strings, was played slowly, deliberately, obstinately. “Our business is rejoicing” indeed. This was a performance which cried out that freedom of expression cannot be crushed by brutal leaders.

In the Zhdanov Decree of 1948, Shostakovich went on to be denounced again, along with Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, whose works featured in this concert's first half. Khachaturian had largely kept his nose clean as a model Soviet composer, and his response to Zhdanov's criticism was to write populist film music and his ballet Spartacus, which premiered in 1954. Spartacus has a big, brash score, which the St Petersburg Phil embraced lustily in two excerpts, especially the famous Adagio.

Martha Argerich © Adriano Heitman
Martha Argerich
© Adriano Heitman

Prokofiev left the Soviet Union altogether, though returned to Moscow in 1936. It was during his exile that he composed his Third Piano Concerto, given a dazzling performance here by Martha Argerich. Despite her reluctance to accept the limelight that Temirkanov was determined to throw upon her, she seemed unusually relaxed, rocking side to side and sweeping back her hair during tutti passages, occasionally wiggling her shoulders to the music. Argerich's playing was crisp, balanced with inner steel though she never resorted to hammering Prokofiev's percussive lines. She spun phrases of silver thread in the meditative Variation IV of the middle movement. The finale mixed clarity with aggression, col legno snaps fizzing from the St Petersburg strings. Dragged back to the platform, Argerich's encore, Liszt's transcription of Schumann's Widmung, was so lyrical, the cantabile so expressive, one never missed the words. An intimate gem in a concert of Soviet blockbusters.