It was the Anvil’s turn on Sunday night to host the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra as part of their UK tour under their Musical Director Pavel Kogan. Kick-starting the evening was a new work by BBC Radio 3 broadcaster and musicologist Stephen Johnson – Behemoth Dances – which received its UK première last week at the Cadogan Hall.

Pavel Kogan © msso-kogan.com
Pavel Kogan
© msso-kogan.com

Johnson is no newcomer to composing, but this colourful score – his first large orchestral essay – has considerable appeal. The work’s eclectic style draws on a range of British and Russian influences, (with a brief quotation from Peter and the Wolf) and is scored for a generous orchestra (including piano, saxophone and varied percussion) which is used with assurance. The title Behemoth Dances derives from Bulgakov's cat-demon Behemoth (from the riotous novel, The Master and Margarita) who “wreaks such havoc in Stalin's Russian, yet whose pranks prove to be strangely redemptive for a few privileged souls”. Johnson’s response to this tale is a 10-minute work marked by restlessness, playful exuberance and, not far from the surface, an element of melancholy, possibly resulting from his borrowing of the plainchant Libera me, Domine. Kogan and the Moscow State Symphony did Johnson proud, bringing to life an exciting new score and playing with enthusiasm.

 I didn’t detect quite the same eagerness with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major which followed, even with the dependable John Lill as its soloist. This is another brightly-lit score, but its instrumental colours seemed to drain away here in a performance that, whilst being sure of itself, lacked a certain frisson. It’s a virtuosic work with sardonic humour, but this performance, dryly articulated and short on wit, merely drew attention to the concerto’s mechanistic qualities. With eyes much of the time trained on the keys, Lill dispatched the scales and arpeggio figuration with admirable ease and precision, yet his polished and undemonstrative manner seemed disconnected to the work’s chutzpah. Woodwind solos charmed the ear in the central variations but overall the playing rarely blossomed and in the finale when Prokofiev’s big-hearted tune emerged from the cellos Kogan showed little interest allowing these players their moment of glory.

When it came to Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 in E minor it was like listening to a different orchestra. A now fully-energised Kogan coaxed a sumptuous tone from his violins, lovingly-shaped phrases rose from the cellos and the brass playing was now wonderfully sonorous. Whilst never dominating, their deep-pile tone added a magnificent gloss to a score that, in the hands of other conductors, can be very string-orientated. Kogan produced a well-judged Largo (with nicely shaped cor anglais) but his overly fast Allegro moderato flew by. If no sense of moderato was exercised here, it was bracing and free of any sentimentality.

Kogan’s foot on the accelerator continued in the Scherzo – here given as a daring steeplechase but thrown off with panache by these superbly disciplined players. Relief from the intensity arrived with the Adagio, where an elegant clarinet solo set the opening mood. The Moscow strings were now in their element, delivering a plush tone and playing with a hitherto unheard passion. With just a hint of rallentando and a surge of brass, the movement’s climax was superbly realised, a real moment of “waves-crashing-against-rocks”.

Back to brisk speeds for the finale, where Kogan brought considerable life to its descending scale patterns and, at the end, an exhilarating coda. Two encores were offered: Rachmaninov’s evergreen Vocalise and Shostakovich’s Tahiti Trot – an arrangement of Tea for Two. These last two items demonstrated beyond doubt the real measure of a fantastic orchestra!