Making the most of a high-profile soloist and conductor, with two popular piano concertos as additional bait, plus a stunning poster that presented pianist Freddy Kempf as a Soviet-style Russian hero, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Russian Romantics concerts attracted good audiences.

On Friday, our trip to Mother Russia came via Bohemia, as Alexander Lazarev wooed us with Dvorak's rather prolix symphonic poem, The Noon Witch. Was it the galvanic performance or the context, I wonder, that had me hear hints of Stravinsky to come in its opening pages?

The final work, on Saturday afternoon was Russian but, alas, a disappointing specimen. Glazunov's The Seasons is empty stuff, second-rate ballet music written in the shadow of Tchaikovsky. Glazunov's cornflowers and poppies waltz around with a fraction of the style that the older composer's flowers bring to their Nutcracker dance, and the low point came with a Barcarolle that sounded as if a tired relation of Saint-Saens' swan was floating on Das Rheingold's lulling waters.

But it was delivered brilliantly, the musicians playing for their lives and the ebullient Lazarev spun 180 degrees on the final chord as if to say "so there!".

Saturday's programme had started with Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila Overture presented as a ride on a runaway troika. Setting off before the audience applause had dampened, the almost reckless momentum was massively exciting.

The most substantial orchestra fare had been Friday's Prokofiev Seventh Symphony, simple and even childlike on its surface, yet harbouring much more serious issues.

This is Lazarev's home territory and how well he understands its mercurial moods from wandering melodies and circus jollity to an incisive finale. As an encore we were given the "alternative" upbeat ending, insisted upon by Soviet authorities.

Freddy Kempf last played with the NZSO in 2007, playing Beethoven and Prokofiev - little reason, one would think, for TV3's Nightline to describe him just a few nights ago as the Ozzy Osbourne of classical piano.

On Friday, his Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto was extremely respectful, perfectly gauged yet without any sacrifice of glitter. The partnership with Lazarev was a fruitful one, as the Russian conductor wound sinuous melodies around Kempf's piano lines, their finest moment coming in the chiselled interplay of the dashing third movement.

Saturday's Rachmaninov Third was an even greater triumph, albeit with a Town Hall Steinway that sounded a little worse for wear in the tuning department.

Iridescent moods floated through its opening pages until Kempf took to the composer's massively sculpted piano textures with all the sangfroid of youth and the precision of a top-line artist.

The central Intermezzo was a quest for the soul of the work. Here, the pianist seemed particularly alert to the music around him, making the very most of the nocturne-like solos that Rachmaninov gives the soloist.