On paper there was a hint of Classical Pops about this programme under Tugan Sokhiev: essentially two rousing tone poems framing Rachmaninov's evergreen Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Franck opener was far from a concert-hall staple, though, and, as it transpired, we got a tautly argued, almost abstract account of the Rachmaninov. The performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in the second half, meanwhile, took the composer’s ‘Symphonic Suite’ designation to heart – he was worried that audiences would view the piece as ‘just’ pictorial and not appreciate the intricacies of his compositional handiwork.

Tugan Sokhiev © Mat Hennek
Tugan Sokhiev
© Mat Hennek

It seems, though, that César Franck had no such concerns about his vividly descriptive Symphonic Poem Le Chasseur maudit (1882). It's a terrific piece, with the composer taking just 15 minutes to rattle through his narrative: a quintessentially Romantic story, derived from a ballad by the Goethe contemporary Gottfried August Bürger, about an ill-fated count who, more concerned with hunting than going to church, is condemned to be chased around a forest by demons for eternity. 

It starts with something that could almost be Gounod in pastoral mode, distant tolling and a gentle cello cantilena lying back against a mossy cushion of sound. The count’s defiant horn calls start interrupting, though, before we gallop to a thrilling conclusion that brings us closer to Liszt's Mazeppa. This was the first time the orchestra had played it in nearly 80 years – Carl Schuricht conducted it last, the programme revealed, while Busoni, no less, conducted their first performance. There were no signs of unfamiliarity from the players here under Sokhiev, though, who conducted a performance of really thrilling drama – taut, occasionally perhaps a little overloud, but undeniably exciting.

For the Rachmaninov, the orchestra had the secured the services of Nikolai Lugansky, making his debut with them and clearly setting out to impress. This he certainly did, with playing of astonishing clarity, even at the speedy tempos he seemed intent on imposing. The effect could be a little cold, brusque and business-like even, with an occasional tension when the pianist tried to push the orchestra forwards.

But this no-nonsense brand of virtuosity can arguably trace its provenance back to Rachmaninov himself, and here it gave way to melting lyricism when it needed to. The exquisite Variation 12 was unveiled with chaste tenderness, while the famous Variation 18 was unfussily and movingly presented, with the horns bursting through the texture rousingly when the orchestra took over. We also got to hear Lugansky’s more romantic side in the tender account of June from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons he gave as as an encore; but this was very much a case of Rachmaninov presented – rightly – as a serious composer.

The same might be said for Sokhiev’s account of the Rimsky-Korsakov, or at least of the way that the Philharmoniker played it. Clean, grandly symphonic and technically impeccable, this was a Scheherazade that never felt like it was going to get down and dirty in the bazaar. But rarely can the score have been dispatched with so much control and virtuosity. Each instrumental solo, not just Andreas Buschatz’s supremely seductive personification of Scheherazade herself, was so authoritative and characterful as to suggest a mini-concerto.

Occasionally these solos felt over-interpreted – the principal bassoon, in particular, tried to make rather too much of his time in the limelight. At the same time, Sokhiev might on occasion have taken a little more care with balance: the brass and percussion, particularly at the magnificent return of the opening seascape in the final minutes, sometimes drowned out even the Philharmoniker’s unsinkable strings. The conductor knows his way around the piece, though, and steered an exciting but controlled course through its various episodes. And there was no quibbling with the sheer thrill of hearing such untold tonal riches lavished on this score.