Stephen Johnson is a much respected presenter and writer about music. As we discovered in Saturday's concert from the remarkable Moscow State Symphony Orchestra he is also an accomplished composer.
Possibly the Russians took an interest in his Behemoth Dances because of Johnson's passionate interest in the culture of their country. The scenario of this vibrant piece is based on a satirical Russian novel, but we don't actually need to know that, as this well-imagined score speaks for itself.
Its gripping, urgent opening has something of William Walton's brio about it, with bold, firmly-etched rhythms riding under confident orchestral sonorities. Darker interludes intervene, and there is particularly atmospheric use of the vibraphone.
Behemoth Dances' bristling energy was generously conveyed by the MSSO under Pavel Kogan's empowering baton, with the Hereford-based composer present to acknowledge the immense, well-deserved applause.
The work's references to plainchant melodies linked it neatly with the Dies Irae used extensively in Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini which followed. Well-drilled and alert, the MSSO brought much freshness to this familiar score, combining with soloist John Lill to deliver a steely, gritty account with its structure all of a piece.
Lill's fingerwork was fleet and fizzing, his chording well-weighted, not least in the first appearance of the grim Dies Irae itself.
There is also an element of plainchant in Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, probably one of the most ubiquitous of all 20th-century symphonies, but here, again, emerging as newly minted, with a flowing sense of forward momentum and delicate dynamic nuances -- and, as the finale shrilled into action, a hair-raising accelerando.
Kogan drew some haunting colours from his players, not least an evocative colloquy between flute and horn, and snare-drum flourishes like the shuffling of a cardsharper. I have been left jaded so often by routine performances of this work so crucial to the salvation of its composer's career. Not this time.
And it was Shostakovich who provided the most delicious among the three encores we were given, his Tahiti Trot, a transcription of Tea for Two which he had once orchestrated in 40 minutes flat to win a bet.