The Perth Festival of the Arts has been quietly brightening up the latter half of May for 48 years, attracting performances the city would certainly miss otherwise. It is a festival which has broadened out to cover a larger range of artistic genres, widening its appeal, but retaining the healthy core of classical material. A feature of the Festival is that young musicians are billed in the programme alongside the big names like English Touring Opera and The Sixteen. Perth Youth Orchestra plays at the opening service, local secondary schools perform lunchtime concerts and there are recitals from young musicians embarking on their careers. Perth Concert Hall was packed out for this closing concert, the audience eager to hear the large Russian Philharmonic of Novosibirsk tackling staple Russian repertoire.

Sergei Redkin © Daniil Rabovsky
Sergei Redkin
© Daniil Rabovsky

Siberia’s Novosibirsk, the third largest city in Russia – sometimes called Russia’s Chicago – sits about halfway along the trans-Siberian railway. It was birthplace to this performance’s conductor, Thomas Sanderling, when his father Kurt was assistant to Yevgeny Mravinsky, chief conductor of the exiled Leningrad Philharmonic in 1942. Novosibirsk was the wartime temporary home to several major artistic institutions, which ironically lead to a surge of post-war creativity and the formation of the Russian Philharmonic of Novosibirsk in 1956. Sanderling has had a distinguished career, including being approached by Shostakovich to conduct the western premieres of his 13th and 14th Symphonies, and has returned to the city he left as a two-year-old to take up the role of this orchestra’s Principal Conductor in 2017.

Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture was a dramatic opener, beginning mysteriously with soft woodwind and horns floating over strings and harp. Sanderling carefully balanced his forces, then slowly wound them up into a very lively development, the string players’ energy almost boiling over as they attacked the fiendish unison passages with a thrilling Russian swagger. The woodwind had a beguiling timbre almost like a harmonium with a reedy edge, giving a warmth to the quieter passages with fine work from the cor anglais and luminous harp. The energy and passion of the main theme bursting out with brass ablaze was electrifying, but the almost chorale-like ending with searing strings preceded with ominous drum beat was especially touching.

Paganini’s theme from his Caprice no. 24 is well known, attracting a long list of composers who have used and adapted the catchy tune. Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is perhaps the most famous, almost a boutique piano concerto with its set of 24 variations. Siberian-born Sergei Redkin, a young pianist with a string of prestigious international prizes to his name, on a rare UK visit provided much excitement in this lively interpretation. Taking a studious rather than flamboyant approach, Redkin’s firm touch initially threatened to overwhelm the opening delicate passages in the orchestra, but the balance soon settled down. Sanderling was alive to the nuances of each variation, driving the players on with a sharp crackle at the livelier end, but allowing space in the more restrained variations with room to develop a sense of wonder – especially in solos from the leader bassoon and soulful clarinet. Rachmaninov’s Dies Irae arrived early on, Redkin’s sombre chords a sudden contrast to his punchy bright attack, and he was beautifully lyrical in the famous "inverted" variation. The finale – so daunting that Rachmaninov reportedly fortified himself with a shot of Crème de Menthe to get through it – was exhilarating, with pianist and orchestra rushing along like a Siberian whirlwind.

Finally, the players delivered a shattering performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 “Pathétique”, a work that follows the turmoil of the composer’s last days. The quiet bassoon opening with violas and dancing flutes was soon shattered, a tumultuous outburst from timpani and brass, the five horns adding to the drama with their “bells up” playing. Sanderling guided the players along the journey with well-judged experience, the great sweeping themes in the cellos, yearning violins and the colourful pointed woodwind with a wonderfully haunting clarinet solo. The boisterous third movement was taken at speed, scurrying strings and jaunty clarinets giving way to triumphant music, delivered with muscle and verve. The final adagio painted grey colours initially, but the woodwind’s glowing warmth brought hope, the string players tearing into the anguish before the brass chorale signalled the slow fade to double bass.

With its all Russian personnel, international recruitment may have not reached this orchestra, but watching them leaning into this music with complete commitment, this repertoire is clearly in the blood. Ending the concert and their UK tour, the orchestra dispelled any gloom by giving a spirited encore of the Pas de deux from The Nutcracker.

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