After an innovative concert of left-hand piano concertos the previous night, this programme from the Russian Chamber Philharmonic St Petersburg seemed more formulaic: a crowd-pleasing combination of Shostakovich, Elgar and Brahms. But it proved a good showcase for the orchestra’s diverse talents, and a challenge to the accepted wisdom that Russian orchestras only excel in Russian repertoire. The Brahms Third Symphony was the highlight, a performance of impressive balance, reserve and sophistication.

Alexander Kniazev © Istanbul Music Festival
Alexander Kniazev
© Istanbul Music Festival

The Shostakovich Festive Overture began the concert as a bold and flamboyant opener. The acoustic of the Hagia Eirene is a mixed a blessing for orchestras, offering warmth and presence but often compromising detail and balance. Shostakovich’s trumpet fanfares were imposing, but in this space the brass sound regularly overpowered. Nor did conductor Juri Gilbo make any concessions to the space in his choice of tempi, which were punishingly fast, especially on the woodwind. Even so, the overall effect was suitably arresting, and the sheer weight of the orchestral sound here was always impressive.

Alexander Kniazev was the soloist for the Elgar Cello Concerto, making this an all-Russian performance – an unusual experience, at least for this English listener. The style of performance was certainly Russian – bold, emphatic, unflinching – but that seemed to suit most of Elgar’s score very well. The sense of bittersweet nostalgia that usually characterises the first movement was little in evidence, though, with Kniazev and the orchestra presenting the long themes in a more direct and confident style. That meant that the contrast between the sections was reduced, and the second subject was not as light and nimble as we usually hear. The best of this performance was the Adagio third movement. Kniazev stressed continuity of line, presenting the movement as a single, unbroken melody. But there was plenty of inflection here too, and the accompaniment, especially from the orchestral strings, was always discreet and sensitive to the melodic profile. For encores, a movement from Bach’s Third Cello Suite and Saint-Saëns’ The Swan – the latter a real treat, with warm, gentle accompaniment from the orchestra’s harpist.

The Brahms Third Symphony was an unexpected delight. Given that this is the most reserved and unassuming of Brahms’ symphonies, it seemed a poor match for this orchestra’s bold style and opulent sound. But it turned to be an almost ideal combination. The Russian into-the-string bowing of the string section gave a definite and affirmative profile to all of the main themes, an ideal foundation for the elaboration to follow. The woodwind soloists all excelled, and Gilbo was able to find ideal orchestral balances to showcase them. Again, the brass sometimes overpowered, and the ensemble of the horn section at the opening was questionable, although they found their form in the later movements. The ending of the symphony was particularly impressive. Both here and in the previous night’s concert, Gilbo had demonstrated an ability to set up dramatic moments, with carefully graded dynamics and patient tempi in the preceding sections, and the last movement coda benefited from this approach, with the symphony moving towards its gentle conclusion with a gradually accruing sense of inevitability.

Given the way that Russian orchestras do business there was no way that this concert was going to end on such a sombre note, and so began a series of increasingly slapstick encores, all Russian-sounding, though I’ll happily confess to not recognising any. It seemed a shame to break the dignified mood of the Brahms in such a gratuitous way, but, as ever, the audience here went wild for it. So, as far as the encores go, I’ll happily concede that I was in a minority of one.