Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra at the National Concert Hall, on 30 May 2017
This is the Moscow Philharmonic’s first visit to Ireland. The previous seven days has seen the ensemble play six concerts with soloist Freddy Kempf in the final stretch of their May tour of the UK. Tonight, the British pianist performs Rachmaninov’s beloved Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, but has also been performing the composer’s third concerto on this tour.
The piano that Kempf will play on is nestled at the back of the stage as the audience take their seats, the cellos rest propped against the players’ chairs. Percussion instruments are ranged across the back of the stage and there is a second, orchestral piano to the side, along with a celesta and a harp. A contrabassoon rests on its stand. Tonight’s programme features some large-scale ballet music, and demands an extended orchestra.
The first pieces are excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ and, as the lights dim, we are drawn into the sound world that has captured imaginations for 140 years. A silky clarinet melody, and the pulsing precision of the woodwind chords in the first few minutes confirm that we’re in for a very special night. The Dance of the Cygnets is taken at a splendid waddling tempo, conductor Yuri Simonov directing the ensemble with the utmost grace.
Maestro and orchestra are beautifully in step, and there are some wonderful details in the interpretations. The percussion section provide some subtle colour in the third excerpt, the famous waltz. The triangle is given a slight shake on the long notes, creating a shimmering effect. Flourishes such as this are evidence of why this orchestra is held is such high esteem. They demonstrate deep respect for the music, lovingly breathing fresh life into it. The movement closes with a series of full orchestral chords that are placed with the greatest precision, a particularly stylish delay on the last.
The stage is rearranged and Kempf takes his place at the piano. The Rachmaninov concerto opens with a series of shockwave chords, each one rippling more intensely through the pianist’s body until the orchestra enters with the surging melody. There is no indulgence of tempo in the brisk, vigorous exposition of the first theme. When the theme returns towards the end of the movement, it is with a stately elegance. Kempf gives us all the fire for which he is rightly known, and then, in the Romantic spirit that this piece embodies so eloquently, coaxes achingly beautiful playing in the rising second theme. The fingerwork, particularly in the trills of the second movement, is truly breathtaking. This is a profound reading of this towering masterpiece and is a privilege to have witnessed.
After the interval, the orchestra present Simonov’s own selection of music from Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. This new suite weaves a fresh retelling of the tragic narrative and the brilliance of Prokofiev’s orchestral colour is revealed by the ensemble’s staggering ability. The stentorian Dance of the Knights elbows its way to the front of this selection; the sliding viola part in the sinuous middle section is delightfully done. We meet the giddy radiance of Juliet, we sense her gentle heart. The kindly Friar is given voice by a lovely bassoon solo. The comic relief offered at various points along the way can’t put off the end, though, and the tale’s devastating conclusion is borne out in all its terrible glory. The high horn melody and the dread march of the trombones coil around the gasping romantic melodies until, after a final, beautifully prolonged chord, there is silence.
We are given three generous encores, and the audience rise to their feet again and again. Simonov pulls his pocket watch from his waistcoat and we have a final encore, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz, each repetition of the melody coming a little slower. A playful, magnificent performance to cap a playful, magnificent concert.


Tchaikovsky – Swan Lake selection
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor (Op.18)
Prokofiev –  Romeo and Juliet (Large suite compiled by Yuri Simonov)
Rachmaninov – Vocalise
Prokofiev – Gavotte from Symphony No. 1
Prokofiev – March from ‘The Love for Three Oranges’
Tchaikovsky – Waltz from ‘Sleeping Beauty’