What a difference a week makes. After last Thursday's Pictures at an Exhibition where the Orchestre de Paris coated a pristine layer of French polish over Mussorgsky's score, the Moscow Philharmonic delivered a far earthier gallery at The Anvil. With its wheedling trumpet in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle, smouldering saxophone in The Old Castle, paintstripper brass glowering in Catacombs, here was an orchestra that had retained much of its distinctive Soviet sound. It was like stepping back inside an old Melodiya recording.

Yuri Simonov © Ivan Smirnov
Yuri Simonov
© Ivan Smirnov

I've long admired the Moscow Philharmonic, a gritty orchestra which made its name in the 1960s under Kirill Kondrashin. Together they premiered Shostakovich symphonies such as the Fourth and No. 13 “Babi Yar” – the ones Evgeny Mravinsky wouldn't touch with his Leningrad Phil because of the political dynamite associated with them. The Moscow sound was legendary – excoriating brass, shrieking woodwinds – and their approach under Kondrashin was always no-holds barred, if coarse for some western tastes. This remarkably generous all-Russian programme demonstrated their terrific qualities, even if Pictures turned into a series of caricatures.

At 76, Yuri Simonov is unmistakably an Old School conductor, with an autocratic, tsar-like air, ruling by divine right. He has a fluid baton technique, tracing precise shapes, sculpting every single phrase. Simonov isn’t one to hurry his gallery visits. His survey of Mussorgsky’s eclectic tribute to Viktor Hartmann was almost perversely slow. Oil paintings have dried faster. Gnomus crawled along, Simonov – who likes to strike a pose – rocking side to side, hunchbacked, on the podium. Tuileries dragged and the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks nearly shuffled to a standstill. Of the faster numbers, only The Marketplace at Limoges chattered along at a decent tempo. But in the statelier numbers, Simonov’s approach worked wonderfully; Bydło lumbered, bass clarinet and contrabassoon snarled in Baba-Yaga and The Great Gate of Kiev was thunderous. The MPO seemed to be a percussionist short, resulting in much entertaining swapping of positions and instruments, one player thumping the bass drum with his left hand and crash cymbal with his right.

Other vignettes in the programme were painted vividly. Anyone familiar with Scheherazade will know that Rimsky-Korsakov could whip up a storm and shipwreck with ease (he was a former a naval officer, so had first-hand experience of storms at sea). In his tone poem Sadko, which later inspired his opera of the same title, the young merchant plays his gusli (a lyre-like instrument) in the Sea King’s realm, the resultant dancing causing a storm which threatens to splinter his ship to smithereens. To save his crew, Sadko smashes his gusli to pieces – cue Simonov to freeze in a Superman pose – and calm was restored. Demonic bass drum and timpani rattled the Anvil, while the harp impersonated the gusli extrovertly.

Gentler scene painting came via Dawn over the Moscow River, the evocative prelude to Mussorgsky’s great opera, Khovanshchina. Although none of the woodwind players were on risers, and thus largely hidden, there was nothing anonymous about their playing, with buzzing bassoon, cheeky clarinet crows, and a slightly queasy oboe all distinctive in their way. From the same opera, The Dances of the Persian Slaves formed a slinky encore.

In between all these larger-than-life pictures came a beautiful – and beautifully paced – account of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor with soloist Freddy Kempf. This wasn’t barnstorming Rachmaninov – apart from the composer’s punchy sign-off – but romantic and sensitive, where every phrase, every note was allowed to register. Both pianist and orchestra knew when to play second fiddle, Kempf acting as rippling accompaniment to the big string theme before taking his turn in the spotlight. Despite a fair amount of head bobbing, his was playing of great maturity, neither dazzling with pyrotechnics, nor attempting to smash the landspeed record... and all the better for it. Simonov was quick to adjust dynamics, drawing superb playing ranging from warm horn vibrato to grainy double basses to a sensational clarinet. Further Rachmaninov – a glowing Vocalise in memory of those who lost their lives in Manchester the evening before – ensured this ‘brief encounter’ with the Moscow Phil didn’t finish until nearly half past ten, but I’d have happily sat through it all over again immediately.