Yes, it really was the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra playing at Cadogan Hall, two nights after a visit by another famous Russian ensemble. Why the uncertainty? Just under 20 years ago, the MPO arrived in Hong Kong for a series of summer concerts. There was only one problem: it was not the real MPO that was playing. This did not emerge until a few days later when the institution that had suffered the indignity of collective impersonation found out about it. Rogue musicians from lesser-known Russian bands had engineered what came to be known as “The Moscow Philharmonic Hoax”.

Yuri Simonov
© Ivan Simonov

And it really was Yuri Simonov, its chief conductor since 1998, who was on the podium, presiding over his mostly young and intensely committed players with a meticulous beat and occasional imperious gestures in the grand style. And the evening’s entertainment, drawn from the unashamedly romantic Russian repertoire, started on time too.

There was plenty of glowering gloom in Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet, the spectre of a threatening iron fist slowly raised in the background. This was less about unbridled hot passion and heady sentiment, more about the analytical traversal of a Greek tragedy. Instrumental details emerged atmospherically from the textures: the double basses delivering in the introduction a series of anguished heartbeats, the harp in accentuated dynamics like the tolling of a bell, the crackling timpani pointing to the forthcoming thunderstorm and those unmistakeably Russian trumpets piercing the air magnificently.

For Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov was already the face of the rising new generation, whose early work as a composition student he had had many opportunities to admire. Alexandra Dăriescu surveyed his Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor without any unnecessary indulgences in a fresh, at times fleet-footed reading. Whereas there was sometimes a lack of heft in the opening Moderato movement, she came into her own in the slow movement, her crystalline tone adding sparkle to the many dreamlike sequences, the left hand calling attention to the darker colours in the moonlight. Her encore, a duet arrangement with the MPO’s principal cellist of the slow movement Romanze of Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor was a very fitting tribute to the composer in the bicentenary year of her birth.

What stood out in the second half, devoted to excerpts from two great ballets, was the way Simonov refused to subject the music to purely virtuosic treatment, viewing the scores not so much symphonically as balletically. First off were eight extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Tempi throughout were on the steady side, emphasising the dance-like character of the music with its graceful and elegant qualities, so that in the festive panoply of the Danse des coupes the delicate string pizzicati had their proper place. Again and again the MPO displayed its impressive strength in the string department, while wind solos were characteristically fruity.

I have a soft spot for the ballet scores of Khachaturian, often derided by supercilious know-alls in the West for their openly populist vein. Which tunesmith wouldn’t have given their right arm to have written the waltz that comes from the incidental music to Masquerade (given here as one of three generous orchestral encores, the others being Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and Tchaikovsky’s Danse espagnole)? The story of Gayaneh might be creaky, but no less a prima ballerina than Margot Fonteyn once danced one of its pas de deux to a White House audience. From the intensity of the Adagio and the mellowness of the saxophone solo in Ayshe’s Dance to the tingling Sabre Dance and hair-raising Lezginka to conclude, this music was suffused with vibrant Caucasian colour.