Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra marked the mid-point in their five-concert ‘Voices of Revolution: Russia 1917’ series with a celebration of the Soviet worker and an exploration of the way different composers responded to being required to labour on behalf of, or with an eye on, the state. It’s often easy to forget that for a while in the 1920s the Soviet Union was a leading centre of cultural modernism, on a par with the futurism then being expressed in the West – although pre-Revolutionary and written for Paris, Stravinsky’s echt-Russian Rite of Spring could be said to be the musical work that kicked it all off.

Vladimir Ashkenazy © Keith Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keith Saunders

There are shades of the Rite in Alexander Mosolov’s best-known piece, The Iron Foundry, a furious three and a half minutes of orchestral brutalist ostinato that formed this concert’s ‘overture’. Wheels ground under circling string phrases; great hammers crashed down from the percussion; piccolos shrieked their siren warnings of white-hot ore; and horn-players rose to their feet to summon the noble workforce with the closest thing approaching a tune in the piece. There’s nothing like a bit of heavy metal to blow the cobwebs away, and Ashkenazy led a furious, visceral account of the piece.

Prokofiev was still in exile in Paris when he composed his Third Piano Concerto, though the work reached Moscow in 1927, a decade before he returned to his homeland for good. His music seemed to offer the ideal balance to suit the cultural requirements of the time, combining rhythmic immediacy with lyrical approachability. These were certainly elements brought out by the soloist in this performance, young Uzbekistani pianist Behzod Abduraimov. In the first movement, there was a sense of the metrical rigidity hanging over from the Mosolov, though Abduraimov’s playing here had a surprising inward-looking quality that only properly opened out from the second movement onwards. His pianism in the finale was dazzling and, as it should, the concerto culminated in what always sounds like a race for the finish between soloist and orchestra – a worthy tie here.

After the interval came a second concerto, but a far rarer one. Reinhold Glière had none of Mosolov’s modernist tendencies, remaining an unashamed Romantic until his death in 1956 at the age of 81. Fortunately this chimed with the Soviet authorities’ demand for music that spoke to everyone and he took a very laid-back, amenable approach to toeing the line. His Concerto for Coloratura Soprano is almost indecently retro for a work written in 1943 – indeed, with its nods to Verdian melisma, Rimskian ballads and Rachminanovian melancholy it wouldn’t have sounded out of place any time during the second half of the 19th century. But it’s a guilty pleasure, nonetheless, and was gorgeously sung by Russian coloratura Nadezhda Gulitskaya – its exposed, wordless vocal lines set a fiendish challenge, but she shaped phrases and spun its melodies with ease before ending on the most dazzling of top Fs at the end.

Glière’s The Red Poppy (1927) has been credited with being the first truly Soviet ballet, telling of the love of a Chinese woman for a Russian sailor against a wider political, anti-Capitalist background, with plenty of cod-Chinese colour in the music and even a Boston waltz as a parody of Western decadence. It had a troublesome history, not least after the Maoist revolution in China, when its references to opium had to be excised – not easy when its central act was a drug-fuelled dream sequence. That section was a highlight in this performance of the ballet’s concert suite, with Glière exploiting his well-tested late-Romantic idiom as the tune of the Internationale surges through the layers of Scriabinesque harmonic rapture at its climax. Ashkenazy belied his 80 years in the sheer energy he put in to his conducting and consequently drew from his players, the familiar Russian Sailor’s Dance fully exploiting the Philharmonia’s virtuosity, while the tender violin solo of leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay in the love-music of the fourth movement was given just the right amount of room to breathe.