Esa-Pekka Salonen is an impressive conductor to watch. His movement is fluid, elegant and simple, yet he achieves a wide range of different gestures: I'm not an orchestral musician but I imagine that it would be very easy to follow his intent. The Philharmonia certainly seem to find it so: in an all-Russian programme of four very different works, they produced orchestral sound that was superb throughout: wonderful string tone, powerhouse brass and percussion, neatly intermingled woodwind.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

The programme started with rather an odd beast, the suite that Shostakovich extracted from his music for the 1930 ballet The Age of Gold, a bizarre propaganda piece about a victorious Soviet football team on a trip to the decadent West. Ironically, and in keeping with the cliché that "The Devil gets all the best lines," the decadent Westerners get all the best music: the Adagio depicting the evilly seductive Western opera star is particularly fine. The orchestra features a huge brass and percussion section, and the music morphs through a dozen different styles: inventive, humorous and superbly played by the Philharmonia throughout, but mercurial to the point of being rather disjointed.

By 1948, when Shostakovich wrote his Violin Concerto no. 1, his life under the Soviet regime had become very difficult and it's difficult to discern any of the humour or light-heartedness from his youth. If there's any irony, it's pretty bleak and well concealed. The four movements start with a calming and elegiac Nocturne of rare beauty, followed by a shorter manically accented Scherzo, a portentous Passacaglia (which ends in an extended and passionate solo Cadenza), closing with a frantically paced Burlesque.

The Proms audience gave rapturous applause to soloist Lisa Batiashvili. She's a superb technician, with a lovely smooth violin tone and perfection of phrasing, but I wasn't quite convinced. I felt like I was hearing two great performances of the concerto, one by the Philharmonia and one by Batiashvili, with not nearly enough blending between them; I also thought the serene beauty of the Nocturne was marred by too much vibrato. The solo Cadenza, on the other hand, was quite wonderful, and the encore was even better: a lovely waltz from Shostakovich's Seven Dolls' Dances, arranged by Tamas Batiashvili (Lisa's father, also a violinist).

After the interval, with the brass and percussion sections restored to their over-sized strength of The Age of Gold, Salonen gave us a virtuoso rendering of Stravinsky's Pétrouchka (or Petrushka, if you prefer the English transliteration). It's an awesome piece of music, with remarkable portrayal of movement. In the fairground scene at the beginning, so many things are going on in the hustle and bustle of the fair that your ears can't possibly keep track of them all, and the momentum keeps going right up to the final cheeky grin of Petrushka's ghost. My only problem was that it made me really want to see the ballet as I listened to the music - although there's no way that a theatre's orchestra pit would ever yield the kind of orchestral sound quality we had last night, with every phrase clearly distinguished.

After all the excitement of Stravinsky's chromatics and polyrhythms, it took me a few minutes to retune my ears to the more straightforward tonality of Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini. The work is drawn from the passage in Dante's Inferno in which Francesca, damned for adultery, describes to the poet how she fell impossibly in love with Paolo as they read Arthurian poetry. Once re-tuned, I found the piece richly rewarding: Tchaikovsky gives us a passionate evocation of the fires of hell, followed by the tender beauty of Francesca's doomed love and a crashing climax of the poet's sympathy and despair as she sinks back into the abyss. Dante leaves us in little doubt that his sympathies are with the damned couple rather than the cuckolded husband, and Tchaikovsky is no different. The music is far more forward looking than one might expect, and I could hear many effects and sounds that found their way into the 20th century works we'd been listening to earlier in the evening.

It was a Prom with four very different works, all of them played to a very high standard. On this evidence, the Philharmonia deserve to be considered as one of the very top orchestras.