For obvious reasons, this is the kind of programme you’d normally expect to see the Royal Scottish National Orchestra doing around 14th February. Their Valentine’s Day concert isn’t happening this season, so I guess it’s better to do it now than not at all, with a programme of two tragic love stories sitting alongside one of the most luscious pieces of musical Romanticism.

Roman Rabinovich, Ludovic Morlot and the RSNO
© Jessica Cowley

The course of true love never did run smooth, however, and the start of this concert had me worried that the match between the RSNO and conductor Ludovic Morlot was tragically star-crossed. Morlot’s beat was dangerously difficult to follow during the opening of the Tristan und Isolde prelude: watching him was giving me a headache, so I dread to think what it must have been like for the musicians. That lay behind some rather ragged entries during the whispered opening phrases, and it might explain why the ensemble was repeatedly patchy. It’s a shame because the suave strings and lyrical winds were beautifully balanced in terms of pure sound. Things improved by the climax of the Liebestod, by which time the violins had rediscovered their “soar” setting, but the lack of connection between conductor and orchestra meant that this prelude only flowed; it never engulfed or consumed.

There were similar problems in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, but this time the connection issue came between soloist and conductor. In many ways Roman Rabinovich’s reading of the piece was really appealing. He’s a subtle pianist, playing Tchaikovsky’s warhorse with smoothness and lyricism; never reverting to sledgehammer techniques, even in the opening. The orchestra were better, too, with rich, luxurious strings, song-like woodwinds and majestic brass. Much of the technical side of things needed a lot more work, however. Too often Rabinovich’s hands weren’t quite in sync, especially in the frequent double-octave passages, and the lack of communication between him and Morlot became increasingly problematic as the work continued, particularly in the finale where they seemed completely to ignore each other, with one racing ahead while the other did his own thing.

They must all have had their Weetabix during the interval, however, because things improved dramatically for the sequence from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Maybe it was the theatrical element, or maybe it had just had more rehearsal time, but the fight scenes sounded brilliantly together, marvellously so at The Death of Tybalt, and the only point of stress in the whole suite came at the climax of the Dance of the Knights. Morlot also used the much bigger orchestra to greater effect, with many more layers to the sound, including a lovely shimmer on the Balcony Scene, rising in impetus as the passion gathered. The bite of the string lament at Juliet’s Funeral carried chilly majesty, while the silence of the ending felt unarguable. I guess you could say that with Juliet’s passing this marriage of orchestra and conductor finally blossomed. Better late than never.