With arts cuts looming, London's orchestras will be looking to put their best, most distinctive feet forward this autumn. For the LSO and Valery Gergiev that inevitably means their Russian foot – shod on this season-opening occasion not in the exquisite cherevichki of a Tchaikovsky, nor in the brightly coloured valenok of a Stravinsky, but in the shop-floor safety shoe of Rodion Shchedrin.

Nicknamed the Soviet Union's "official modernist", Shchedrin, now 77, is being championed by Gergiev as one of a number of Russian composers in need of post-cold war reassessment. But unlike, say, Alfred Schnittke or Sofia Gubaidulina, Shchedrin's reassessment doesn't do him many favours. It seems harsh to say so, but iron-curtain context made Shchedrin's music seem more interesting than it really is. Take the Fifth Piano Concerto, which places the framework of a romantic-virtuosic concerto at the service of some mightily undistinguished ideas. It is certainly difficult to play, not only for the pianist and orchestra – who must continually wrestle with dense, muddy scoring – but also the piano itself, which barely survived the final cadenza, the muscular Denis Matsuev's assault on the instrument egged on by Bacchic interjections from woodwind and brass.

The concert opened with Shchedrin's best known work, his quirky ballet arrangement of Bizet's Carmen. The score is full of witty details, but Gergiev's uncharacteristically heavy-handed treatment made it sound rather as if the Red Guard had marched into the bullring. Luckily, the concert's second half was a superbly crafted performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Gergiev took severe risks with the tempi, but somehow they all paid off, allowing Ravel's wondrously clever scoring to exhibit the orchestral talent that the first half had done so much to conceal.

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