Manchester and St Petersburg have enjoyed a close relationship as twinned cities for some 50 years. The Russian city’s other great orchestra, the Philharmonic, gave a very fine concert to a packed Bridgewater Hall in 2012. Tonight the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra brought a richly varied programme to another large and hugely appreciative audience.

Freddy Kempf © Neda Navaee
Freddy Kempf
© Neda Navaee

The opening moments of Sibelius’ Karelia Suite immediately exhibited the characteristics that define the orchestra’s sound. The violas are at the heart of this, forming a thick, sinewy core below which the cellos and basses purr luxuriously. They were particularly effective in the suite’s slow movement. The outer movements, meanwhile, buzzed with excitement in the distant horn calls and trumpet fanfares.

A high profile trio of soloists joined the orchestra for Beethoven’s somewhat neglected Triple Concerto. Its relative obscurity in the context of his output is difficult to explain; while it is quite plausibly less coherent or striking than a lot of his other works, it is nonetheless full of a brilliantly curious blend of wit and mystery, and throws a particularly warm glow on violin and cello soloists. Alexander Sitkovetsky and Natalie Clein both gave very accomplished performances in these roles, and interacted neatly with pianist Freddy Kempf. Clein’s tone was especially lovely, light and elegant in the early pages and singing with great colour in the upper register later on. A couple of lapses of intonation detracted little from this. She and Sitkovetsky combined beautifully in the third movement, but of the three soloists only Kempf seemed to make any real connection with the orchestra.

As a result much of the bridging between orchestra and soloists was left to Dmitriev, who therefore conducted much of the concerto looking to his left, leaving his back turned to the lower strings. Perhaps this contributed to the distinctly heavy-based sound of the orchestra, even with a couple of desks pruned from each string section. It made for quite a traditional, full-blooded Beethoven sound. This certainly makes for some stirring moments and some darkly introspective corners, and clearly has its merits, but it does leave some of the finer details somewhat obscured.

There were plenty of very fine moments through the concerto, though. Kempf’s close interaction with the clarinet in the slow movement was beautifully realised, and the sense of soft mystery at the end of that movement was very pleasingly built up and then realised at the outset of the finale. The Polish dance element of the Rondo was attacked with vigour, and without any indulgent tempo changes in the final minutes the concerto came to a spirited close.

It was a shame that the primary school parties sitting in the choir seats, who had apparently so enjoyed the first half, seemed to be taken home during the interval. They missed a very accomplished account of Rachmaninov’s much-loved Second Symphony. It never threatened to become overly sentimental – indeed, Dmitriev’s approach was generally quite pragmatic and to the point – but still displayed some very fine playing.

The opening movement was taken at a relatively steady tempo, which suited the sighing second subject very neatly, especially in its wistful later reappearance. There was a marked growth in intensity and power in the development passage, hinting at the unhurried but firmly voiced playing in the Scherzo. This was occasionally slightly better-mannered and less wild than one might have hoped, but the trio was far from lacking in character.

Clarinettist Adil Fyodorov gave his famous solo with utmost assurance and beauty of tone in the slow movement, particularly in its softer corners. The atmosphere was steered well away from full-blown, heart-on-sleeve tragedy by Dmitriev, instead spinning an altogether more subtly coloured sound. The string sound was a constant joy its dark colours and rich legato. The finale, in keeping with the rest of the symphony, was thoughtful and coherent. The main themes were far from boisterous, and the recaps of the slow movement certainly not saccharine. Dmitriev engineered a subtle and steady increase in intensity to the coda, before pushing ahead in the last pages to an excitable, but thoroughly cogent, conclusion.

The Manchester—St Petersburg link is certainly one to be cherished, if this is the product.