The Philharmonia Orchestra offered us an evening of Russian standards, and began with what might be the earliest Russian orchestral work still found in the international repertoire. Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila struggles for a hearing outside Russia but its scintillating overture makes as lively a curtain raiser as we possess. The Philharmonia’s athletic strings relished its sparkling first theme, rising to the challenge of its swift tempo with playing of superb élan. Chinese conductor Long Yu has been the Music Director of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra since 2003, and guest conducts all over the world. He is reassuringly old-fashioned in style, with a long baton and a clear continuous beat, which the Philharmonia players apparently value. From the outset there was no doubting the authority of his leadership or the soundness of his musicianship.

Long Yu © Askonas Holt
Long Yu
© Askonas Holt

Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto is rarely absent from the concert schedules, indeed according to a recent survey on this site it was in the last few years the sixth most played of all piano concertos. The Chinese-American pianist George Li is now all of 22 years old, and continues to accumulate awards for his remarkable playing, but could he find anything interesting to say about this particular warhorse? Yes he could, not by an eccentric interpretation, or any performing mannerisms, but by a central approach to interpretation that nonetheless managed to sound fresh. The sheer precision of Li’s articulation often enlivened a piece of passagework not usually considered especially significant, but which was also kept in proportion, not overindulged. He somehow seemed to play the lyrical moments such as the first movement second subject with a sense of discovery, as if the music was quite new. Conductor and players also seemed to catch this sense of occasion. The build-up to the compelling alla marcia return of the first theme was expertly controlled by Yu, and the horn solo by Laurence Davies at the return of the second theme beautifully phrased.

The Adagio sostenuto second movement opened with fine solos from Samuel Coles (flute) and John Bradbury (clarinet), both of whose contributions were notable even among much fine woodwind playing throughout the concert. The tempo was slow and the mood quite unashamedly romantic, as it should be, right through to a soaring final statement from the orchestra. George Li then opened the Allegro scherzando finale with a discreet lift to the phrasing that maybe the marking implies. The lyrical B flat second theme, once the victim of its universal popularity and dozens of arrangements, was persuasively straightforward and sincere, but presented with triumphant splendour at its climactic return. The coda’s hectic dash to the finishing line was followed by a particularly enthusiastic roar from the audience.

There was a favourite solo encore, French music but still with a very Russian accent, in Horowitz’s Variations on a Theme from Carmen. The gypsy dance from Act 2 of Bizet’s opera is quite theatrical enough, you would think, but here is re-staged by Horowitz as a different kind of whirling, colourful display, with the soloist standing in for the gypsy heroine. It is in truth a fairly vacuous piece of virtuoso flamboyance, but it’s fun and can work brilliantly in the right context. It worked here alright, and the audience’s cheer for the encore nearly matched that which greeted the end of the concerto.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is another repertoire staple, partly for its real or assumed relation to Stalin’s terror, partly for its adherence to formal conventions, but surely mostly for its innate quality. It is among the most played works by its composer, and there is therefore a well-established performing tradition for this score. Long Yu subscribed wholeheartedly to that tradition, and through persuasive control of tempi, tension and dynamics, succeeded in letting the music speak directly. He is a conductor who lets the players play, which is a particular benefit in a work which has many a solo passage, and where at times there is alarmingly little on the page. The woodwinds again took their various opportunities, as did the harps and celesta at the haunting close of the second movement Largo, and lead violinist Zolt-Tihamér Visontay brought the requisite village fiddler rusticity to his violin solo in the Allegretto second movement. The finale’s blaring coda – superbly played by everyone, thunderous timpani and all – sounded unironically triumphant to me. But the composer did supposedly say “You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that the finale of the Fifth is irreparable tragedy”. So I hope they won’t take it amiss if I say this particular oaf left the Festival Hall feeling he would be glad to hear more of both George Li and Long Yu.