Iconic works, an evil house spirit, a passionate romantic and the threat of State persecution – this was the formula making up Yuri Temirkanov’s latest offering with the Philharmonia Orchestra in this all-Russian programme. In typical Temirkanov style, Russian powerhouse works dominated this concert but, on this occasion, a little gem was also thrown into the mix.

Denis Kozhukhin © Felix Broede
Denis Kozhukhin
© Felix Broede

Anatoly Liadov was a rather pernickety and unreliable composer. Nevertheless, his technical mastery, attention to detail and orchestral flair were qualities much admired by his peers, and his best known pieces are his three short tone poems, all modelled on Russian fairy tales. Kikimora was his musical evocation of the eponymous house spirit from Slavic folklore, a witch who lived in a cave on a mountainside, plotting malicious deeds, plaguing households and spinning flax by night. The regal Temirkanov, batonless and with a slight twinkle in his eye, conducted with sweeping hands and twitching fingers, from its brooding opening to the sparkle and bite of Liadov’s colourful orchestral textures. The Philharmonia played with verve, portraying the witch’s unpredictable mayhem with fine control, although I did feel that more could have been made of the piece.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, one of the most popular pieces in all music, saw Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin controlling affairs with passion, calm assurance and thoughtful precision, showing great technique and varying the emotional content impressively. He was forceful and incisive building up to the passionate climaxes, and became suitably light and bouncy in the more intricate passages. Temirkanov was considerate in support, drawing a warm sound from the orchestra and carefully emphasising certain phrases, even single notes, to complement the winding piano lines. Despite this, there were moments in the Moderato first movement and in the Finale when the timing was out, with an occasional lagging in the orchestra resulting from laying down too lush an orchestral blanket. Sentimentality was nicely poised in the Adagio sostenuto, however, with Kozhukhin and Temirkanov providing a respectful performance and mellifluous lines from the piano delicately holding the movement together. Things moved apace in the Allegro scherzando, which was punchy and bright. Kozhukhin interwove skilfully, showing subtle changes of pace, and his deep intensity in the rhapsodic outbursts had him nearly off his stool towards the end.

Shostakovich's Symphony no. 5 in D minor was his coded statement of defiance against Stalin’s regime of terror, subtly masquerading as the composer’s "response to just criticism" after falling out of favour with the State and returning to music more likely to please the authorities, on the surface at least. Temirkanov produced a well-shaped and polished performance, but it felt a little too refined and lacked some rougher edges in the outer movements. The Philharmonia’s playing, however, was superb in all departments, with silvery strings and biting brass and percussion, particularly in the satirical martial themes.

The central movements had the best of it. The Allegretto was demonically gritty, with suitably reckless and aggressive strings and with sardonic winds and brass flailing around and jabbing away with pointed cynicism, and the strained anguish of the Largo had Temirkanov and the Philharmonia completely immersed, the orchestra playing with deep intensity and a real sense of purpose. With blaring brass and strident timpani heralding the opening of the Finale, volumes were turned right up to 11. This resulted in a slight lack of cohesion and some balance issues, but with no shortage of frenetic tension. Being carried along with the relentless momentum was irresistible, culminating in an industrial barrage of incessant pounding emphasising the tragedy of the symphony’s “forced rejoicing”. Temirkanov was visibly serious and shell-shocked at the end. This music clearly meant something.