A neighbour at a recent visiting orchestra’s Edinburgh Festival concert asked me what I thought of the atonal frenzy in the pre-performance free-for-all; warm-up scales mingled with sneak peeks at tricky passages. My response was that a school orchestra would not be allowed to do this. Contrastingly, the vista before this St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra’s Usher Hall concert consisted of an unpeopled stage. The orchestra filed on in a matter of seconds. Coupled with white tie and tails appearance, this may have struck some as overly formal. For me there was more a feeling of “here we are in your town to play for you”. They quickly tuned to the piano before Alexander Dmitriev and Freddy Kempf stood centre-stage to acknowledge the warm welcome of this sell-out crowd.

St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra in St Petersburg
St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra in St Petersburg

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor begins in a similarly no-nonsense way. A tiny orchestral introduction ushers in the piano and, pretty soon, much loved trademarks of this composer are in full flow: long soaring themes supported by rich adventurous harmony; piano writing only possible from a fine player. A soloist such as Freddy Kempf eclipses the adversarial and individualistic nature of the concerto genre and music’s more appealing characteristics shine. The beauty of his tone was the first of these to strike me. Technique seemed such a given that lyrical phrasing, balance and musicianship could be enjoyed. I was struck in one of the second movement’s quieter moments, where the piano pretty much single handedly brings us down from a climax, how “advanced” the harmony sounded. I mean this less in the sense of abandoning tonality, but more in the use of jazz harmonies which would not be common parlance for decades to come. There was nothing short of an uproar of appreciation at the end of this fine performance and Kempf acknowledged this with a very sensitively played extract from Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod.

It had already been quite a weekend for lovers of Shostakovich in Edinburgh. Peter Oundjian’s tenure with the RSNO had offered an explosive rendition of the Eleventh Symphony. Similarly strife-laden in background, Symphony no. 7 in C major has special significance for the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra. Their current tour represents a double celebration: the orchestra’s 80th birthday, and the 70th anniversary of the première of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, which was given by an early incarnation of the current orchestra – the Leningrad Radio Orchestra. The circumstances surrounding this work were extraordinary. Seven months into the 28-month siege of the city by German forces, the work’s performance was broadcast live in Russia, overseas and, via loudspeakers, to the besieging troops. I found the idea of lobbing music at the enemy completely gripping. Perhaps this informed my impression that some members of the percussion section had this historic broadcast in mind when playing: crashed cymbals were held high in ostentatious defiance; the tambourine player looked, on occasion, as though he were the city’s sole defender. I couldn’t help wondering if Britain would turn to a living composer, were a malefactor to menace our shores.

The lengthy ostinato in the opening movement is an exercise in pacing. Whenever there is drama to be heard in Shostakovich, a snare drum is never far away. Beginning very quietly, the invasion theme is draped over a military rhythm. Several appearances later, I found it difficult to remember how quietly it had begun. This section would be a great lesson in orchestration, but I have to be honest and say that was simply not in my mind at the time; I was completely carried along by the drama – and the sound! The sound of this orchestra at full tilt is wonderful: huge string sound, plangent brass, pungent wind, and explosive percussion. However, they are also capable of a delicately introspective sound.

As one might expect in a symphony lasting over an hour, moods contrast greatly. Shostakovich’s trademark irony is a constant. But there are also many dark, pained moments. Across the work, I was very impressed by the conducting technique of Alexander Dmitriev, who has been with the St Petersburg Symphony for an impressive 35 years. Regardless of the mood of a given movement, he seemed to regard his remit as the unambiguous transmission of information and his style was completely devoid of rhetoric; better to leave expression to the players.

This was a triumph of a performance and the audience were once again very vocal in their appreciation. Before the various sections were signalled to take a bow, the evening’s snare drum hero was singled out and I was pleased that everyone seemed to have been as thrilled as I had with his contribution. It was a great privilege to be at this celebration of one of musical history’s most dramatic events.