What gives an orchestra its character? In the case of the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, it could be a number of things. It is the sister orchestra to St Petersburg’s better known Philharmonic – not bad company to keep – and it has a strong national identity, made up of home-grown talent and having grown up absorbing Russia’s rich musical culture. Conductor continuity might also play its part. Alexander Dmitriev, a native of St Petersburg, has been the orchestra’s Chief Conductor for the last 40 years. Or maybe it is its own heritage that forms its character. After all, the orchestra was responsible for one of the most remarkable events in musical history when, 75 years ago, against all the odds, it performed the famed Leningrad première of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.

Alexander Dmitriev © St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Dmitriev
© St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra

Dmitriev had the perfect opener for the London leg of the orchestra’s latest UK tour. Solemn, romantic and dramatic, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture had all the elements to display the orchestra’s characteristic Russian sound and, while these players might have grown up listening to this music, it still managed to sound fresh. The famous love theme and the agitation of the opposing Montagues and Capulets saw Dmitriev exerting calm but firm control, with his experienced hand holding back just that little bit extra to create added tension before finally letting go into that gloriously vibrant sound that permeates the orchestra. There was some slight intonation trouble in the woodwinds, who were otherwise airy and full of character, and it was slightly ragged in places, but the climaxes were as thrilling as any you’re likely to hear.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G minor lies in the shadows of his more popular Second and Third concertos. Composed in 1926 and performed here in its more commonly performed 1941 revised version, the imposing Peter Donohoe played with characteristic power and forcefulness, a perfect foil to the robust sound of the orchestra, while showing deft articulation and uncanny intricacy. Dmitriev provided wonderful support, particularly in the legato passages, drawing out some free-flowing wind solos and with searing strings and rasping brass. There was some minor lagging in the opening Allegro vivace, but the transitions between episodes were nicely held. The Largo had Donohoe playing as intimately as if he were performing Rachmaninov’s Preludes, with his feel for natural phrasing a real joy, and the dexterity and dynamism of both soloist and orchestra produced an exciting, skittish and racy finale.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor, "Pathétique", his valedictory symphony and his last composition to be premiered during his lifetime, is one of his greatest achievements. Dmitriev directed the orchestra effortlessly and without unnecessary embellishment, coaxing oodles of passion and emotion from his players. They were not always together in parts of the first movement and there was a lack of dynamic contrast in the quieter passages, but Dmitriev still maintained a thrusting sense of drama, with delightful poise in the lilting 5/4 second movement and a sparkling and jabbing third movement, with the strings and woodwinds forging forcefully and stridently through. The angst of the grinding, straining strings and melancholy winds added fittingly to the reverberating brass to sustain inner turmoil and ultimate resignation in the Adagio lamentoso

Despite some lack of finesse, it was the sheer sound, dedication and raw energy that won through, and two encores, Bach’s Air (on the G String) from his Orchestral Suite no. 3 and Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no.1 in G minor, ensured that there were smiling faces leaving Cadogan Hall.