St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Martin Kershaw

three stars

STARK, plangent and ultimately defiant – Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is a truly a mighty thing, whose composer spent much of his career living on the verge of imprisonment under the Soviet regime, constantly walking a creative tightrope. An appropriate work to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution therefore and the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra gave it a duly committed, resolute treatment. That famously bleak opening, the Allegretto waltz’s rictus grin, the heart-rending lament of the Largo, the triumph of the final movement – all were granted determined, sustained attention in a powerful performance. A deserved rapturous response followed for excellent work, only slightly undermined by the memory of a first half that had been a little underwhelmingby comparison.

Certainly the choice of repertoire was not to blame for this. The two excerpts from Khachaturian’s Spartacus are gloriously realised orchestral gems, particularly the Adagio, which features what is surely one of the most captivating melodies ever put to paper. And Prokoviev’s Third Piano Concerto is rightly considered a classic, a fascinating work whose dizzying difficultly is matched by a bewitching variety of tone and texture. In the Khachaturian, though, the ensemble struggled to achieve cohesion – entries and endings were ragged, intonation and balance were often elusive, direction disengaged and distant. The Prokofiev sometimes felt as if featured soloist John Lill (who gave a solidly assured, virtuosic rendition) was pulling the orchestra along behind him, chivvying them into life but never quite getting the response he deserved. So, yes, an admirable second half display, but one that couldn’t quite exonerate the flaws in what had preceded it.