The two works on tonight’s programme, both giants of the repertoire, are tricky to carry off for different reasons. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23 is so familiar, and is such a barnstorming giant that it can be hard to bring any kind of freshness and subtlety to a performance. BrahmsSymphony No. 4, Op. 98, on the other hand, suffers from perceptions of his music as heavy, difficult and conservative compared with that of his late Romantic contemporaries. There was also nothing other than these two titanic works to ease the audience in. So how would the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by a rather serious Yuri Temirkanov tackle this, along with fellow Russian pianist Denis Matsuev? In short, with simplicity and ease, and, as a result, giving surprisingly refreshing performances of these familiar masterpieces.

Yuri Temirkanov © Sasha Gusov
Yuri Temirkanov
© Sasha Gusov

Temirkanov’s no-nonsense approach was immediately evident, so much so that he took the orchestra slightly by surprise as the opening horn entry was a little slow off the mark. However, then we were off, and amongst the powerful chords, Matsuev immediately impressed with his precise articulation and attention to detail. The first violins were a little slow to get going, with their first big tune slightly underpowered, but once all were settled in, this was a suitably swaggering opening from all. However, most impressive was Matsuev’s intimacy in the quieter solo passages, and in the cadenza, he made the most of the Schumannesque hanging harmonic inflections as if this was a chamber recital. The second movement’s opening was given a delightfully uncluttered reading, with Matsuev’s semplice openness matched by delicacy and an emphasis on smooth tone from the woodwind. The central prestissimo went off at a lightening speed, which made Matsuev’s crystal clear filigree detail all the more astounding. The finale had great energy, spirit and a real sense of fun, with Matsuev and Temirkanov perfectly judging the flow of tempi between the wild rondo theme and the contrasting episodes. Matsuev kicked into a new gear to power up for the work’s manic conclusion, and the brass were almost left behind in the frantic dash for the finish. This was a performance with plenty of fireworks, but the right kind for a change: power, virtuosity and drama for sure, but extreme contrasts, fine detail and moments of high intimacy too. Matsuev gave a well-deserved encore of more Tchaikovsky, the Méditation, Op. 72 No. 5, and once again combined brilliance with immediacy, and incredibly even control in the extended final trill.

Then to Brahms, and his fourth and final symphony, a testament to his mastery of formal structure and intellectual complexity, yet one full of passion and drama too, which Temirkanov and the Philharmonia certainly brought home to us. The first movement was well paced with clear forward propulsion from the skeletal falling thirds ‘theme’. The Philharmonia’s warm string sound was in evidence, and apart from a few slightly sluggish triplet cross rhythms from the brass, the ensemble was tight. Again ensemble was strong in the second movement, with precise and delicate pizzicato strings, and beautifully blended tone from the horns and woodwind. Temirkanov steered proceedings towards a strong climax, with the unexpected temporary drop from E minor to C major for a brief moment in the closing bars making perfect sense, rather than jarring as it can if overemphasised. This is crucial to an understanding of the work as a whole, given its use of the falling third throughout, from the first movement’s opening theme onwards. They took the Scherzo at a cracking pace – perhaps more than Allegro giocoso, but nevertheless the energy gained as a result was highly effective. The central horn and bassoon chorale was warm and touching, before the opening section's return, and a masterful prefiguring of the final movement’s passacaglia theme. The orchestra shaped the dynamics with real expertise, but either they were incredibly well rehearsed by Temirkanov, or were left to their own devices, as I couldn’t see much from the conductor – maybe it’s all in the eyes! In the monumental final passacaglia on an eight bar Bach melody, but with an added chromatic inflection, Brahms, the ultimate architect of form is present. Yet as Roger Moseley’s programme notes rightly point out, his treatment of this eight note sequence is incredibly forward looking, and the integration of this with the falling third idea show he was no conservative stuck in the past. To emphasise the third movement’s prefiguring, Temirkanov launched attacca into the finale, and once again at a pace. There was some excellent solo work here, particularly from the principal flute. Temirkanov produced real drama here, and in the final one-in-a-bar coda, with its driving hemiolas, a powerful finish to this taut reading, one of the strongest I’ve heard in a long time.