Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Martin Kershaw

four stars

SHOSTAKOVICH, who swithered perilously between thinly veiled condemnation of Stalin’s tyrannical rule and sycophantic endorsement of it, composed his Festive Overture in a matter of days. Commissioned to mark the 37th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, it is an exploding firework display of triumphant bombast so intense it almost feels parodic. The assembled forces of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra dispatched it with aplomb, revelling in the work’s unbelievable energy and giving us an early taste of the awesome volume they can generate. We were also introduced to director Yuri Simonov’s captivatingly eccentric conducting style – cartoonishly dancing and gyrating to the music with infectious abandon, and actually (or did I imagine it?) riding an imaginary horse to the piece’s galloping conclusion.

As if that weren’t enough excitement, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto followed, bringing to the stage featured soloist Freddy Kempf. He gave this infamously difficult work a passionate, assured performance, concise and fluent without lapsing into melodramatic showboating. The ensemble generally kept pace well, although things did sag slightly in the final movement: constant attention has to be paid to the shaping of such music if it isn’t to get lost in soggy phrasing.

The second half was entirely given over to a suite derived from Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet, with the selections made by Simonov himself. And here I had some reservations, feeling that his compilation just didn’t quite tie together, in spite of an admirably resourceful and committed performance from the orchestra that was enthusiastically received. And if three encores seemed somewhat excessive, the dedication of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise to the victims of last week’s Manchester atrocity was apposite and moving.