Seven years before the outbreak of the First World War three countries signed the Triple Entente: Great Britain, France and Imperial Russia. There was a similar alliance at work in this Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert: a British orchestra, a French conductor and an all-Russian programme. The main work, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, was actually premiered in St Petersburg in February 1908, just a few months after the signing of what was intended to represent a harmonious understanding between three of the leading nations of the day. Interestingly, the conductor, Lionel Bringuier, and his Ukrainian soloist, Valeriy Sokolov, were born within two days of each other in September 1986.

Lionel Bringuier
© Simon Pauly

Yet, careful strategic planning notwithstanding, alliances can quickly come apart at the seams. As if to flag up the potential for conflict and, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars”, the RPO had decided to market this concert under the banner “In the face of adversity”. In one respect, however, soloist and conductor were well matched: both clearly wanted to take the sting out of Shostakovich, to downplay the extremes. There were moments in the first movement of that composer’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor when a sense of suppressed pain was just about palpable, ethereal sounds coming from harp, celesta and tam-tam as if to underline the chill in the air, and a suggestion of foreboding towards the close which reminded me of the heightened atmosphere in the same composer’s Symphony no. 11. But too often Sokolov retreated too far into his inner world. This lack of assertiveness, of being too self-contained, was even more of a problem in the following Scherzo which saw the soloist integrated into the orchestral texture, rather than breaking free from it. As a result, this movement merely skipped along, rather than being, in the words of the dedicatee David Oistrakh, “evil, demonic, prickly”. If you like wild and frenetic dances to be controlled, with the head ruling the heart, Sokolov’s approach would not have disappointed. The phrase “dancing through tears” has been applied to this movement. The dancing was there; the tears were not.

In the Passacaglia third movement, after urgent-sounding lower strings and confident horns, the soloist revealed more of his inner self, the playing still poised but by now warmer, yet the fiendishly difficult cadenza, which extends for all of five minutes, saw nothing of the blood-and-guts stuff that can chill the bone-marrow in an outstanding performance. Instead, and despite the season of spooks and spectres, this session of gentle sparring would have done nothing to frighten the horses. Even in the Burlesque finale the boisterousness was measured, the bars of the cage tapped but never seriously rattled. What happened next though was totally unexpected: Sokolov’s generous encore made more of an impression on me than his handling of the concerto. In the cadenza from Paganini’s Violin Concerto no. 1, he was clearly in his element, the silvery tone and aristocratic line of his instrument ideally aligned to the music, the pyrotechnics negotiated with considerable aplomb, the brilliance spellbinding.

Whether Bringuier’s relationship with the RPO is destined to flourish (there is a major European tour planned for the early part of next year) remains to be seen. For all the good qualities on display in this debut appearance, I didn’t feel that he was ever wholly inside the Rachmaninov symphony. He cuts an elegant figure on the podium, is not overly demonstrative, except in climactic moments, and doesn’t over-emote. Individual sections of the orchestra were carefully balanced, with little sign of the besetting sin of so many younger (and even some older) conductors of allowing the brass to drown out the strings and brass. There was clarity and transparency in the playing, qualities which are highly desirable in the French repertory, but which on their own result in something one-dimensional in romantic Russian works. This was the work that carried the Russian symphonic tradition into the 20th century. Its motto theme, present in the cellos and basses from the start, draws on a technique which Tchaikovsky had already used in his Fifth and which ultimately gives the entire work its coherence and organic unity.

Any sense of Stygian gloom was dispelled at the outset, no hint of “black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue”, in Lawrence’s memorable phrase. Tempi were relatively brisk throughout, noticeably so in the second movement, with just sufficient relaxation in the work’s central Adagio, distinguished by a mellifluous clarinet solo from Benjamin Mellefont and dark-toned lower strings. But atmosphere and what might loosely be termed Russian soul were in short supply over longer stretches of this heart-warming work, Bringuier often choosing to emphasise the ebullience of the writing and mood of festivity at the expense of mining what is buried deep below the surface.