From the lobby of Sage Gateshead, there is a magnificent view across the Tyne to Newcastle, with Newcastle United’s football stadium clearly visible, but the sound inside the hall last night was that of their arch-rivals Sunderland when the visiting St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra began its concert with music from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The Dance of the Knights is used to play Sunderland onto the pitch at home games, and there were a few smiles around the sold-out hall when this theme began.

Yuri Temirkanov © Sasha Gusov
Yuri Temirkanov
© Sasha Gusov

After the opening brass cacophony, conductor Yuri Temirkanov brought the cellos rising serenely out of the stillness, making such a distant sound, it was as if they were in another room. The Dance of the Knights was a polished legato, giving us the first taste of the St Petersburgers’ glowing string sound. Each low note was given lots of weight, so the tune didn’t sound as hectic as it often does but instead flowed with an unbroken, strong pulse.

The orchestra chopped up the Romeo and Juliet storyline, playing the whole of the second suite, then adding Masks and The Death of Tybalt from the first suite to create a climactic ending to the first half of the concert. With no baton and minimalist hand gestures, Temirkanov gently steered his orchestra through the wide-ranging moods of Prokofiev’s score. The dances were often quirky, but never losing their fluidity and momentum, but despite all the woodwind colour in this and later in the Rachmaninov and Ravel, it was always the strings which stole the show. It may have been where I was sitting, quite close and therefore slightly below the orchestra, but throughout the evening I felt that the upper woodwind sounded a little thin, with nothing to match the gorgeous string texture.

The tragic scenes carried so much weight that they seemed to be about so much more than just two small people. The orchestra created an ever deepening sense of fate, of events spinning out of control, particularly in the brass passages. The terrible chords that mark the death of Tybalt were hammered out in a vicious staccato before the brass poured out their final devastating melody.

It was a good evening for anyone with an I-Spy book of Big Russian Tunes, with the second half beginning with Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Soloist Nikolai Lugansky and the orchestra went for elegance in the opening variations, with crisp rhythmic precision and a good balance between the piano and orchestra. What really made this performance stand out though was that beneath the crisp, virtuosic finger-work Lugansky projected an underlying stillness that added depth to the brilliance of his technique. When everything slowed down for Variation VII the tiny violin interjections were exquisite little droplets, almost inaudible, but adding a little dose of wit that the orchestra and Lugansky developed together through the rest of the work.

Nikolai Lugansky © Marco Borggreve
Nikolai Lugansky
© Marco Borggreve

The slower middle section, building up to the famous Variation XVIII, shimmered with light and space, and I felt as if I was breathing in the fresh grassy air of a Russian meadow on a sleepy summer day. Variation XIII itself was tender and a little wistful in the piano opening, before the strings poured in, unashamedly romantic and proud, but like a dog shaking off water, Lugansky and the orchestra immediately returned to spiky energy for the remaining variations, full of wit and character, and even the pounding Dies irae theme couldn’t shake the good mood.

Russian orchestras playing Russian music are all well and good, but there is a tendency, particularly by Russian orchestras on tour, to stick rigidly to their national repertoire, so it was great to see the St Petersburg Philharmonic including Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite no. 2 – a piece that, like the Prokofiev, slotted into Sage Gateshead’s year long season of dance music. The opening notes of the Lever du jour still sounded ominously Slavic though until the flute solo bubbled through and the music slowly illuminated the hall, climbing to the final pure brightness of the violins that lost none of its rich tones even in the very highest notes. This was a gloriously languid awakening, a slow, sunlit holiday morning that busy people on a cold January night can only dream of. The long flute solos of the Pantomime were light and playful with cleanly articulated runs against the relaxed mood of the orchestra, who seemed to be taking inspiration from the two harpists in their light shimmering sound. Finally, Temirkanov unleashed the full force of the orchestra for the excitement of the Danse générale, an immensely fun performance, full of colour and with each crashing chord quickly dying away to rebuild for the next: the concert ending as loudly as it had begun.