All Russian programmes have a certain unique place in regular concert-goers’ affections. With a menu that started with Khachaturian and ended with Tchaikovsky on top of Rachmaninov, Mikhail Agrest offered devotees of Russian music an opportunity to gorge on some of the country’s most loved pieces. The need for the ten-minute Adagio from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus, though, was questionable, lengthening a not insubstantial concert for the sake of what was essentially a palate cleanser.

Mikhail Agrest © Primavera Consulting
Mikhail Agrest
© Primavera Consulting

It’s an appealing piece though, drawn from the second act of one of Khachaturian’s most famous works, depicting the celebration of Spartacus and his wife Phrygia on their reunion and escape (this is prior to the mass crucifixion at the end of the slaves’ revolt). It’s a bold, sweeping score and Agrest drew fine playing from the LPO that highlighted the detailed woodwind writing, particularly for oboe, and the balance from the strings. An expressive solo from leader Pieter Schoeman, beautifully phrased, saw the evocation of the lovers at its strongest. Agrest’s interpretation seemed to lean slightly towards the cinematic over the balletic in terms of scope and force, though certainly with no loss of sophistication as a result.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor is a notoriously difficult piece for a soloist by any standards, challenging the pianist to navigate the technical complexities without sacrificing feeling and meaning. Full credit then to Andrey Gugnin who approached the work in a measured and clearly comfortable manner, bringing purity of tone and lightness of touch, particularly to the first movement. There was a slight issue with balance between orchestra and piano where Gugnin’s more introverted, contemplative approach was sometimes drowned out by bold breadth of the sound Agrest drew from LPO, but when they matched, especially in the final movement, it was a delight, the grace of Gugnin’s performance offering a refinement to the visceral playing of the orchestra. Highlights included the fragrant contributions of the woodwind in the first movement, evenly-phrased and beautifully toned, balanced against string playing of grit and colour which shifted in the second movement to a pale shimmer. Gugnin’s treatment of the first cadenza stood out, though, for the manner in which it was conquered, the effort that such dimensions require barely visible. A thoroughly compelling performance complete, Gugnin returned to the same composer for an encore of the Prelude in G minor, given with gentle lyricism.

Like so many staple works, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor had a poor start, with critics attacking what was perceived as its overly programmatic nature. It’s a work which places heavy demands on the brass section, and with one or two brief lapses, the LPO’s brass delivered a rapt and forceful performance, the finale to the first movement almost haunted in its rapid and tense sound. The highlight of Agrest’s interpretation was the focus on texture; one felt the variety of sound within the string section, layered over the woodwind and under the brass. The clarity of definition allowed the structure of the symphony to come to the fore, an impressive achievement. Pacing was intelligent, a willingness to allow the piece to breathe particularly noticeable in a flavoursome third movement – languid pizzicato a treat to hear – contrasted with the drive in the first movement and the riotous colour of the fourth.

****1