The much-feted American wunderkind Nico Muhly provided an energetic curtain-opener in his new work Mixed Messages. First performed in May at New York’s Carnegie Hall, (and scored for large orchestra with assorted percussion, piano and celesta) this eclectic work received its UK première on Friday night. Motor rhythms formed a sonic background to a work that bore kinship with the post minimalist style of John Adams and, at 11 minutes, had a sense of being an elasticated Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Its intentions, however, developed from the idea that things are not always what they seem, translated here as discrete orchestral blocks at odds with one another and which served to underline his notion that “music can be interpreted along divergent even contradictory paths simultaneously”. With a changing roadmap that veered from frenzied to lyrical, no idea outstayed its welcome, and whilst Mixed Messages may not have had anything new to say in the orchestral canon it was an entertaining amuse-bouche for the more serious fare performed next.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Jan Reger / Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Jan Reger / Philadelphia Orchestra

Muhly’s bright colours turned a battleship-grey for the Shostakovich Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor. For this performance, Georgian-born Lisa Batiashvili joined the Philadelphia to create one of those gripping accounts where soloist, conductor and orchestra all seemed to be united in their vision of this once suppressed and daringly unambiguous work. The Nocturne’s expansive tempo made for an especially profound meditation, with an assured Batiashvili delivering plush tone with a rich low gear. She was nimble and feisty in the grimly determined Scherzo, where woodwind and strings were thrillingly responsive to Nézet-Séguin’s galvanising direction, and the movement ended in spectacular fashion – with a superbly alert orchestra.

If the emotional core of this work is the slow Passacaglia, then Batiashvili  brought to it a depth of feeling that would have been hard to improve on. She could perhaps owe this to hearing her father’s string quartet practising Shostakovich during her Soviet childhood, and added to which, her teacher was once a pupil of David Oistrakh, for whom this concerto was written. After an intensely-wrought cadenza, the concluding Burlesque hurtled by in compelling fashion, the orchestra reaching its last manic bars with perfectly controlled ensemble. A parting gift, before the interval, from both soloist and conductor (now at the piano) was an eloquent song transcription by Tchaikovsky.

With the performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor, Nézet-Séguin removed the exposition repeat from the first movement. In some ways it was a shame to deny us a second helping of its two main themes, even if other conductors tend to do this as well. That said, the Philadelphia strings glowed for that gorgeous second subject, bowling-green smooth in their cantabile. Avoiding any Hollywood sentimentality, Nézet-Séguin gave a strong, authoritative performance with mostly well-paced tempi and carefully calculated climaxes. Solo horn and two harps made a most persuasive entry for the Adagio movement, and if the fugato in the closing Allegro was dangerously fast, it was more seat-of-the-pants excitement than reckless joy-ride. This was not just spirited playing from the Philadelphia but a demonstration that this virtuoso symphony is in their collective bloodstream – and the rousing closing bars a testament to their passion and precision.

They couldn’t leave without one last morsel of Rachmaninov and the Vocalise supplied a much-appreciated au revoir.