Conducted by Mikhail Agrest, the London Philharmonic presented a programme of popular Russian music, opening with a polished account of a famous excerpt from Khachaturian’s ballet-score for Spartacus (1954), the ‘Adagio’ perhaps better-known as the theme music for BBC TV’s 1970s’ The Onedin Line. Framed by nicely manicured flute and oboe contributions and a poignant violin solo, it was given a well-paced reading, Agrest alert to the music’s emotional goal. A ripe, well-nourished string tone was present throughout and the expansive climax arrived with a natural sense of grandeur and release.
Then Andrey Gugnin made an impressive appearance in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, a work of formidable demands and titanic performances. This account was beautifully understated and fluent, Gugnin striding magnificently through the technical challenges. He charmed with expressive intimacy; however, the piano’s tone was somewhat lightweight, which is presumably why Agrest reined-in the musicians, although phrases might have been projected a little more and the whole narrowly avoided sounding colourless. But if drama was muted what really impressed was Gugnin’s assurance – his absorbed, crystalline playing – so by the cadenza (the longer first one) you were beguiled by a flawless technique. Cellos and double basses were a little shy in an otherwise poetically-shaped second-movement Intermezzo, its faster section crackling under Gugnin’s probing fingers, and an element of passion emerged in the Finale, but if this reading was all about neatness of execution and taming a wild beast then it succeeded in spades. As an encore this master of poetic utterance gave Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G (Opus 32/5), blessed with magic, Gugnin far away in another world.
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony bristled with excitement, heart-on-sleeve fervour, and Agrest’s flexible tempos brought added definition to thematic outlines. Brass was incisive, strings tender and woodwinds sparkled, notably Timothy Orpen’s melting clarinet during the first movement. The Andantino was a more one-dimensional affair, Agrest forsaking his baton in favour of casting spells with his hands that seemed to have little meaning other than moving the air in front of him. In the third movement the LPO played like a well-oiled machine, superbly responsive to Agrest, and the Finale gathered intensity in response to his knees-bending galvanising to bring this Symphony to a compelling close.