This was a welcome return to the Proms by the Munich Philharmonic, with Valery Gergiev at the helm in his first season as Music Director. The programme catered for a mix of musical tastes, from the romantic to the modern, and presented a journey of emotions, ranging from joy, passion, love and ecstasy to tragedy, sorrow, despair and defiance.  There was also of a bit of a dance theme thrown into the mix, with the Spanish bolero and Viennese waltz making guest appearances.

Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic © Chris Christodoulou
Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic
© Chris Christodoulou

Opening with Ravel's mesmeric Boléro, the longest crescendo in music, Gergiev started as he meant to go on. In characteristic style, he coaxed every ounce of commitment and care out of the superb Munich Philharmonic, from the whispered, almost inaudible opening through to the chaotic flamboyance of the closing bars. Ravel favoured a steady tempo for this piece, and he had a healthy disrespect for conductors who insisted on playing it too quickly. Gergiev's tempo was spot on. He exercised just the right amount of restraint, and allowed the orchestra to relax as the instruments took their turns. The orchestra gradually unwound, became increasingly animated, still maintaining an even pace, and built up enticingly and effectively towards a sensational climax. This fine orchestra has a wonderful sound, and this was a perfect way to kick off proceedings.

Rachmaninov's intensely romantic Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor is one of the most rewarding and technically demanding of all piano concertos. It was performed quite spectacularly by the astonishing young Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov, who was lyrical and flowing from the outset, and was masterly in navigating the many extreme changes of emotion, expertly contrasting the massive, crushing chords with wistful, delicate passages. Gergiev drew out of the orchestra some of the subtleties that are sometimes lost in this richly orchestrated score, such as muted brass and sonorous middle strings, and there was some very effective interplay between soloist and orchestra, with the climaxes expressive and passionate but not over-sentimentalised.

Abduraimov's playing of the first movement cadenza was remarkable, and the way that he transferred the heightened emotions almost imperceptibly into the delicate passage that merged subtly into the orchestra was magical. The only slight blip was a minor sense of lagging and heaviness in the orchestra near the beginning of the third movement, but normal service was quickly resumed and the rest of the piece was balanced, together and resulted in a thrilling finale.

The second Russian piece in this programme could not be more different from the Rachmaninov. Galina Ustvolskaya, once a student of Shostakovich, had a relatively small output. Her single movement Symphony No. 3 "Jesus Messiah, Save Us!" is a good example of her own particular style of modernist music, which is raw, uncompromising, dissonant and violent. Her music in this piece is characterised by blocks of sound, repeated motifs, extreme dynamics, tone clusters and unusual combinations of instruments. But it is also deeply expressive. Her focused style has been compared to the "concentrated light of a laser beam that is able to pierce through metal".

In this performance, the Munich Philharmonic showed the versatility of the orchestra, with the players just as committed in this acerbic but thought-provoking piece as in the other more recognised works in the programme. The actor Alexei Petrenko recited the religious text with reflective angst, conveying almost tragically a rather pleading narrative. By the end, I felt not so much a sense of hope and redemption, but one of struggle and desperation. It is hard-hitting music, but its impact is hard to ignore.

Behzod Abduraimov © Chris Christodoulou
Behzod Abduraimov
© Chris Christodoulou

The full swagger of the Munich Philharmonic came gloriously to the fore in a rousing and uplifting performance Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Suite, Op. 59.  The luscious sound of the orchestra with its rich, sumptuous strings, lustrous winds, and noble and emphatic brass travelled purposefully through this musical journey reflecting the full splendour and opulence of Viennese life. Gergiev fashioned a perfect balance in this lavish score, matching tender, nostalgic passages with those emoting passion, longing and ecstasy. But amongst all of this, of course, we had waltzes. The middle section of the suite, for example, was controlled with poise and a deliberate hesitancy that created very satisfyingly the lilt of a classic waltz in its full resplendent glory.  The soloists played wonderfully, blending seamlessly into the fabric of the musical textures, and the full power and enthusiasm of the orchestra and the joyousness of the music was captured in a vibrant and infectious Finale.

With encores from Abduraimov in the first half (Liszt) and from the orchestra in the second half (Berlioz and Bach), it was hard to leave the concert without feeling thoroughly satisfied and with a big smile on your face.