As I listened to the opening work in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s concert on Tuesday night, I couldn’t help thinking that Sibelius’ tone poem Night Ride and Sunrise is the musical equivalent of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Similar to the theme in this play, the main theme in the symphonic work, depicting a lone horseman’s nocturnal gallop through the forest, is repetitive and at points rather dreary. The atmosphere brightens up considerably after the transition into dawn, with rich textures and bold statements on woodwinds and brass painting an expansive spectacle. Conductor Leif Segerstam kept up an unhurried rhythmic pace that gave the horseman time to savour the variety of colours in the forest in the dead of night and draw a deep breath as the magnificence of dawn engulfed him.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Rachmaninov fell into a period of depression after the disastrous première of his First Symphony. His insecurity was further aggravated by meetings with Tolstoy, who questioned the value of “art” in the classical tradition. His condition deteriorated to such an extent that he eventually sought therapy from a hypnotist. Perhaps because it was his first composition after this period of difficulty, the Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor features less virtuoso playing than one might expect, the piano part being very integrated with the orchestra.

In his performance on Tuesday, soloist Denis Matsuev seemed to understand instinctively the need to let his virtuosic skills take a back seat and go with the flow of the orchestra. The opening chord crescendo was relaxed but sensitive. The strings soon joined in to expound a sweeping melody that defined the drift for the rest of the movement. Leif Segerstam maintained a nimble pace that kept any tendency to over-romanticise in check, but one that allowed the orchestra to explore fully the contours of the movement. Orchestra and soloist were like ballet dancers traversing the stage in unison.

After being skilfully tossed by the piano to the flute and then the clarinet, the gentle theme of the second movement blossomed into a cadenza-like climax that petered out gracefully. In the final movement, Allegro scherzando, it was the orchestra’s turn to take the lead, providing a solid platform on which the piano skated cheerfully, with the strings and woodwinds occasionally settling down to moments of introspection. After meandering through the lie of the land hand in hand, soloist and orchestra eventually brought matters to a close in a powerful display of resolute rhythm. After receiving an extended ovation and several bouquets of flowers, Matsuev launched into a vigorous encore of Grigory Ginzburg’s Fantasia on a Theme of “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville by Rossini, fully showing his virtuosic prowess.

The final work in the programme, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique”, flies in the face of symphonic conventions with some unusual orchestration. The initial musical idea in the first movement, after being introduced by the bassoon, is briefly and tentatively taken up by the rest of the woodwinds. The strings soon break into a statement reminiscent of the Serenade for Strings, but it isn’t until after plenty of toing and froing that the dominant motif of the movement emerges – a sweeping, anguished melody that tends to set you humming for hours. After briefly plunging into an abyss of fear and trembling, the strings soon bring the movement to a quiet close. Segerstam captured the undulating moods of the movement well, applying broad brushstrokes efficiently without burying the details.

Set in 5/4 time, the brief second movement contains some inherent tension, and sounds more like ballet music than a waltz. The brisk opening of the third movement, Allegro molto vivace, presents some rather jerky and repetitive material in march rhythm. Its finish was so resolute and powerful that the audience started clapping, perhaps mistaking it for the finale – but the orchestra immediately put paid to this perception by starting the morose opening of the last movement without a break. With the anguished wailing of the final movement, it was almost as if Tchaikovsky had prescient knowledge about his imminent death. After an extended exposition of the material, the movement ends in a whimper.

There were no grand gestures, fireworks or hyperbole in Tuesday’s performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra – just respectful, subtle and down-to-earth interpretations.

Philharmonia Orchestra, at Royal Festival HallAlan Yu reviews the Philharmonia with Leif Segerstam and Denis Matsuev in Sibelius, Rachmaninov & Tchaikovsky at the Royal Festival Hall.3