Edinburgh gave a warm welcome on Sunday afternoon to the St Petersburg Philharmonic, under the baton of Vassily Sinaisky, a big hitter replacement for the orchestra’s indisposed 80-year-old music director, Yuri Temirkanov.
Whether the crowd in the almost sold out Usher Hall had come to see the Russians or specifically to hear Rachmaninov’s much loved Second Piano Concerto, they would have thrilled to the performance by British pianist Freddy Kempf.
His fresh approach to this familiar masterpiece, forever associated with David Lean’s 1945 weepie, Brief Encounter, explored its Russian soul and reclaimed its musical drama from soundtrack fame. He found passion sometimes in restraint, with an uncliched command of the main themes, but the adagio was all the more heart-breaking for the lack of sentimentality.
Yet there was no doubting Kempf’s dynamic range, or technical mastery, here and in his ragtime encore, Intermezzo by Nikolai Kapustin, which the musicians on stage seemed to enjoy as much as the audience.
Sinaisky, whose measured treatment of Rachmaninov had perfectly matched his soloist, deployed a little too much classic control in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Missing were the freedom of tempos and folksier sounding elements of Austrian dance, although the voluptuous strings were indeed heavenly, as the title, at least of the final movement, demanded.
As for the demonic fiddler of the scherzo, long-haired leader Lev Klychkov looked the part, and duly switched to a violin re-tuned up a tone as instructed by the score, but this was more Viennese refinement than devilish menace.
The Irish soprano, Anna Devin, displayed divine qualities too but without sufficient heft to soar above the 10 basses, 12 cellos and more than three dozen violins and violas – a small band for Mahler (and without the trombones and tuba) but nevertheless formidable for a sweet but small, in this context, voice.
Sinaisky achieved better balance and conjured more patriotic relish from his players in their parting gift to Edinburgh, a sweeping Amoroso from Prokofiev’s Cinderella that pulled out all the stops. The tour, taking in much of Europe, South Korea and China, continues throughout January and February, with Sinaisky at the helm.
The next concert in the Sunday Classics International Series at the Usher Hall is the Symphony Orchestra of India, with Martin Brabbins, on February 24.