Last night, a stage on London's South Bank was turned into a small corner of Russia as the London Philharmonic Orchestra and their Moscow-born conductor Vladimir Jurowski treated us to a semi-staged performance of Shostakovich's little-performed opera fragment "The Gamblers". The stage was set with card tables at which an all star cast of Russian singers played cards while singing through Shostakovich's remarkable setting of Nikolai Gogol's acidly oppressive play.

Vladimir Jurowski © Roman Gontcharov
Vladimir Jurowski
© Roman Gontcharov

It all seems to have been a bit too much for Shostakovich, who never got past the first act. David Fanning's programme notes point out that "the music is sustained at a level of simmering malevolence", and it's hard to see how one could keep that going for a whole opera without driving the audience to suicide. The part Shostakovich completed, however, is totally compelling: he brilliantly portrays the darkness in the soul of both the card sharps and their corrupt, conniving servants. The descriptions of how the gamblers go about marking the cards are grimly hilarious. The Russian language sung in deep baritone and bass voices (Sergei Leiferkus, Sergei Aleksashkin and others) was magical, with the show dominated by tenor Mikhail Urusov's portrayal of the card-sharp Ikharev. Based on last night's performance, I don't understand why Urusov is little heard outside Russia: he has a rare ability to throw back his shoulders and project raw power without a trace of raucousness. We were in the second row last night, and whenever Urusov sung, I kept thinking that seats further back might have been a good idea...

It really made me want to go and read the Gogol original, as did the suite from Shostakovich's completed opera "The Nose", a quirky tale, rather lighter in style, of how a civil servant's nose rebels and deserts him, to be seen riding around the city in his carriage. Gogol has a dark sense of anarchy and humour that is particularly Russian, and the music brings it out to perfection.

Shostakovich does come across as a man of contradictions: he can switch between extraordinary lyricism and mercurial good humour at the drop of a hat. His music overflows with ideas, none more so than the first Symphony that was played in between the two operatic works: it's music that keeps you constantly on your feet wondering where it's going next. This was Shostakovich's graduation piece, written when he was just 18 and 19; we're well used to the existence of child prodigy composers such as Mozart, Chopin and Shostakovich's mentor Glazunov, but this Symphony is surely exceptional in works from such a young age. Not only is it of very high technical quality, but it is so vivid in pushing the envelope of what can be done with an orchestra.

Jurowski certainly did the music proud. Seen from very close up, he left us in no doubt whatsoever as to who was in charge of proceedings, with great precision and economy of movement and with an obvious impact on each member of the orchestra.