With impressive credentials and a track record of orchestral excellence in his home country, Chinese conductor Long Yu does seem to have a particular affinity with Russian music. His forthcoming concerts and recordings for Deutsche Grammophon are set to include a fair smattering of Russian repertoire, so it came as no great surprise that his latest programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra centred on Tchaikovsky. An obvious choice maybe, but then which pieces to pick? The flamboyant and romantic, or the intimate and chamber-like? Yu’s answer was a bit of each.

Jian Wang © Xu Bin
Jian Wang
© Xu Bin

Things kicked off, though, with Autumn from Glazunov’s ballet music The Seasons. Filled with joyful exuberance, Yu powered through the piece more like a brisk power walk than a Bacchanale, although with such momentum at its core, refreshing though it was, there was some loss of clarity. Nevertheless, the Philharmonia created some wonderful sweeping gestures as the piece progressed and a heartwarming Adagio, particularly in the opening section, with smooth cellos and violas combining with melting horns. A special call-out, however, must also go to the percussion section, who punctuated with vitality and precision and gave the piece added vibrancy.

The first dose of Tchaikovsky came courtesy of cellist Jian Wang, who produced a refined and graceful performance of the Variations on a Rococo Theme. It was no coincidence that the piece felt suitably Mozartian, not least because Tchaikovsky was a big admirer, but also because of Wang’s own pedigree in Mozart. Wang’s tone was light and feathery, producing plenty of air and an overriding sense of poise, which created moments of subtle intricacy where he was able to make his instrument sing one minute and chatter vivaciously the next, with effortless decoration permeating the piece. Yu, meanwhile, was attentive and sympathetic in support, with some wonderful ensemble work from the Philharmonia despite one or two moments where the soloist rushed ahead slightly. A captivating cadenza from Wang led to a deliciously mournful Andante in the sixth variation before a frivolous coda rounded off a satisfying performance full of contrast and charm.

Wang’s generous encore proved to be a bit of a treat. More Tchaikovsky, this time the Andante Cantabile from his String Quartet no. 1 in the composer’s own arrangement for cello and string orchestra. This was another eight minutes of sublime music, with both Wang and the Philharmonia on top form.

In a dramatic change of pace, Tchaikovsky’s fate-ridden Symphony no. 5 in E minor after the interval was notable for Yu’s optimistic tempi and his utmost faith in the power of momentum. It certainly made for an exhilarating performance, executed brilliantly by the Philharmonia, but with a slight feeling of overdoing the rather brisk pace at times and lacking a touch of finesse. Nevertheless, Yu was powerful on the podium and did judge the overall shape rather well, showing clear control over the piece with a particularly nice feel for the use of crescendos and diminuendos. The playing was superb, with soaring strings, agile winds and brass entries completely on point. The horn solo in the luscious second movement was full of listless longing, although the rest of the movement did trip along at quite a pace, and the third movement, though suitably light and skippy, lost a bit of tightness here and there. The fourth movement fared best, with the orchestra completely together and moving as one, where Yu’s drive paid-off and the piece ended with an ultimate sense of triumph and majesty. This turned out to be a lively performance of this much-loved work, and proved to be a refreshing antidote to all those turgid performances we sometimes get when self-indulgence gets in the way.

***11