A packed City Hall witnessed the return of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra to deliver a programme of Russian music, two years after their last appearance in Sheffield. Yuri Simonov, their charismatic Director, stepped in at the last moment to deliver a thoroughly entertaining experience that culminated in two encores: Rimsky-Korsakov’s virtuoso Flight of the Bumblebee and Shostakovich’s ‘Polka’ from The Golden Age Suite. Simonov displayed a flamboyant enthusiasm throughout that left the audience in raptures.
It was another of Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous works that formed the highlight of the evening – the exotic symphonic poem Sheherazade. A strong sense of drama was achieved in the contrasting textures, with the rich Russian string sound complementing the more powerful, organ-like brass.
The interpretation was highly original, with some delicious, inventive nuancing. The work’s dance-like elements were most effective, and they were enhanced by some terrific pirouetting at the podium. Simonov allowed the orchestral soloists to take liberties, and the principal violinist, Dmitri Shorokhov, offered romantic renditions of the returning main theme.
Excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty opened the concert. Although Simonov mostly captured the character and impulse of the ballet, some passages were somewhat pedestrian. Perhaps more could have been done to adapt the music for concert performance. Nevertheless, there was some magnificent playing from the orchestra; the virtuoso harp part was executed with particular success.
Sandwiched between was Shostakovich’s dark First Cello Concerto, with Guy Johnston as soloist. This is a work that Johnston is clearly well acquainted with, giving a winning performance of it at the Young Musician of the Year final in 2000. What struck me was how much he has matured as an artist since then. He possesses an incredibly colourful sound that is wonderfully projected. His masterful dynamic control created an intense, dramatic atmosphere, but the audience’s state of gloom was neutralised by Johnston’s more uplifting encore, Bach’s ‘Prelude’ from the First Cello Suite.