"The glass boy", wrote La Verdi on their Facebook page in the build-up to tonight's concert, was apparently how an adored nanny referred to the emotionally fragile young Tchaikovsky. That fragility would stay with the composer throughout his life, finding its way into music characterised by emotional depictions of scintillating intensity. The audience was implored to come emotionally prepped for tonight's concert, which paired two epic musical expressions of loss and grief written a couple of decades either side of the turn of the century. But whilst the performance of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony was polished and highly accomplished, it was Prokofiev's Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor that really got our pulses racing.

Valentina Lisitsa © Gilbert Francois
Valentina Lisitsa
© Gilbert Francois

Written in 1913, Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto possesses the vital energy of an age that gave us the likes of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni's Dynamism of a Cyclist, both of which were conceived in that same year. Swathes of melodious Romanticism remain discernible in the young Prokofiev's style, though in this work, dedicated to his friend and recent suicide Maximilian Schmidthof, steely modernism prevails in an abject expression of grief. “To hell with this futurist music!” attendees of the work's première are reported to have cried. “The cats on the roof make better music!” Pianist Valentina Lisitsa is clearly alive to new ways of doing music – her career took off not long ago when she became a YouTube sensation – and the fresh approach to playing for which she is acclaimed was tonight in full view.

The undulating Romanticism of the opening section yielded to a slow, seething hatred, where Lisitsa's upwards corkscrews coiled the energy and then unravelled in downwards whirls. Conductor Xian Zhang's busy canvas ranged from wispy, chromatic textures, to puncturing spikes in porcupine surfaces, to Debussian frames replete with glides and ripples. At the culmination of Lisitsa's ferocious five-minute cadenza in the first movement, the brass section stormed in with a delicious coarseness that swept away any lingering memories of the earlier Romanticism, transforming the aural vista into a deep, seething maroon.

The orchestra's agility energised Prokofiev's ever-morphing score, but not without vital input from Lisitsa. Her relentless semiquavers, impressively, were invested with broad shape and nuance, and there was an interesting take on sardonic in the third movement, where her tiptoeing jangles had the feel of a sassy burlesque full of mocking play. Lisitsa was able to form a strong rapport with the audience through a corresponding frankness in her playing. After the Prokofiev, she gifted us a sublimely executed encore of Schubert's Ave Maria, and when this wasn't enough, she turned to "La Campanella" from Liszt's Grandes études de Paganini, where filigree trills tumbled and nosedived to gain extraordinary richness at the depths of the keyboard. Lisitsa's skill and originality is supplemented with a sharp capacity for programming, with the two encores respectively touching on the Romantic and mercurial elements in the preceding Prokofiev. 

For Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, La Verdi switched into a more Romantic gear, showing they have all of the resources to realise Tchaikovksy's torrid landscapes. Guttural strings dispatched violent tugs and gloomy melodies, and the musical monoliths that comprise the first movement had a pleasing strength and robustness, graded from one to the next to form well-managed climaxes. Whilst the second movement's portrayal of the alpine fairy may have been too treacly to depict the waterfall somersaults suggested in the programme, the first movement's evocation of the lost Astarte, Manfred's supposed lover, featured first-rate playing, where the orchestra's fine balance guided the ear around a feathery quilt of sound.  

And yet there was the sense that the work had been slightly too well-played, robbing the performance of that extra thrill factor in the process. The Tchaikovsky is evidently in this orchestra's body, and their close familiarity with the work ensured a commanding performance. But there are vast structural flaws, especially in the cumbersome Finale - “I hate it,” Tchaikovsky once said of the symphony, “except for the first movement” - and without that extra spark, the drudgery sometimes surfaced.

Tonight's ambitious, attractive programme linked two Russian pieces by their emotional common ground, whilst demonstrating the vast changes music had undergone in the 30 years between the two works' conceptions. That the orchestra inhabited these contrasting musical worlds with such authority is indicative of its artistry. But where caution was thrown to the wind at the expense of refinement, the sound was doubly effective, and so an incidental message up this programme's sleeve was that the gruff can be especially gripping.