This concert was initially entitled “From Russia with Love” but one minor consequence of the conflict in Ukraine was the title disappearing from e-tickets and the Royal Festival Hall’s signage. Klaus Mäkelä was due to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but he was indisposed and Alpesh Chauhan stepped in at short notice. In a literal sense that title was a stretch anyway. Neither of the two works on the programme, the Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor of Prokofiev (who was born and raised in Ukraine), or the Second Symphony of Rachmaninov, (who co-founded the Conservatory in Kyiv) was composed in Russia, but in Paris and Dresden respectively. After a touching speech from the stage and Ukraine’s national anthem, both warmly applauded by the large audience, war and politics yielded to art.

Daniel Lozakovich
© Stefan Hoederath

Daniel Lozakovich was the soloist for a concerto that has some oddities. The harp and tuba and two of the four horns of the First Violin Concerto are dropped, and so are the timpani. But there is a bass drum with an unusually extensive part – a bit shyly played here, so many might have missed its contribution. It is easy to imagine the soloist is shy in this work too, as its bristling difficulties, especially in the finale, are clear to the eye, but don’t sound spectacularly virtuosic. Lozakovich started well, his solo launching of the work poised and fluent, like much of his account. But he did not quite characterise the music in a way that suggested this was his piece. He excelled most in the centre of the slow movement, his tight fast vibrato conveying intensity in his high descanting cantabile passage. Chauhan kept things together well, given what might have been limited preparation time.

For the same reason, Chauhan could have played safe with the symphony, settling for a risk-free approach. Instead, he decided to go for it, and led an interpretation that encouraged the LPO to dare all in pursuit of symphonic glory. Chauhan’s merits include a clear, large and continuous beat, keenness to cue in important or tricky moments, and energy on the podium. A conductor’s signals obviously need to come a little ahead of the desired response, and Chauhan sometimes risked semaphoring big climaxes so well in advance that one feared an early or muddled entry – instead there was a satisfying and near unanimous “wallop”.

Alpesh Chauhan
© Marcello Orselli

Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony used to be drastically cut as its full text runs for an hour or more, and the composer was strangely tolerant of such treatment, himself cutting sections of his works, but never this one. Chauhan kept it flowing (it was done in 58 minutes without feeling rushed). The score indicates an exposition repeat in the first movement which was omitted here. The score has its demands on the players, not least with its long clarinet solo in the slow movement, which Benjamin Mellefont played with good tone and feeling, even if others mould the phrases even more. Moulding is essential in that real conductor’s test, the long – fully a hundred bars – of the big string tune in the finale, which sags unless the conductors really shape it. There are few expression marks to help, but the a tempo at the outset is the key, slow down to wallow in the lyricism and it becomes a mezzo forte jog-trot. Chauhan saw all this and was very attentive to his players and how they responded.

But perfection was not to be looked for when such a passionate piece is given in unusual circumstances. So not every woodwind chord was immaculate, but many glowed like old gold in an ikon; not every quiet horn entry was neat, but louder ones, like that which launched the Scherzo, were thrilling; not every passage for the large string section (ten double basses) was ideally co-ordinated, but how they sang and soared in that long theme in the finale. Was it perfect? No. Did it capture the mighty soul of this work? Oh, yes. We heard, even in February 2022, the best of Russia.