The Royal Scottish National Orchestra continues celebrating its 125th season, mirroring Prokofiev's anniversary, which will see performances of all five of his piano concertos. With composer and orchestra linked forever by the calendar, it is intriguing that in its back catalogue, there is a recording of Peter and the Wolf narrated by Lina Prokofiev, the composer’s estranged wife. In an all-Russian programme, the powerful pull of the motherland threaded its way right through the music.

Eivind Gullberg Jensen © Mat Hennek
Eivind Gullberg Jensen
© Mat Hennek

Anatol Liadov taught Prokofiev at the St Petersburg Conservatory and composed three orchestral fairy tales or fable-tableux, The Enchanted Lake being a landscape portrait rather than a story. Most fairy tales have a darker side, and while this quiet and gentle piece was like an impressionist painting of a magical glistening lake under the stars, there was the hint of menace in the shimmering strings suggesting nature, cold, sharp and wintery, was never far away. The horns, the only brass, conjured a hazy mist, with the flute and cellos sometimes emerging, all covered by magical fairy-dust touches from harp and celesta. Atmospheric and beautiful, I hope we get to hear Liadov's two companion pieces before too long.

Prokofiev had left Russia after the Revolution, living in the USA, Germany and Paris, but by 1932 he was feeling the pull of his homeland and also the need to concentrate on composition rather than performing. His Piano Concerto no. 5 in G major, written before his return, is full of sharp restless energy. Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky embodied the music with a lively performance full of nervous urgency, as if seeking a resolution. Norwegian conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen made the piece flow with his graceful gestures, indeed it was extraordinary to see such angular almost aggressive music expressed so smoothly. Sometimes the orchestra swamped the pianist through sheer exuberance, yet at others Lugansky’s dancing fingers broke through, at one point hitting chords at the ends of the keyboard like a caged bird looking for freedom. It is the slow movement which throws the whole work into focus as all the strings burst into a sweeping unison theme and we suddenly understand just how much the composer misses Russia. A jaunty final movement with spectacular cascading octaves and dreamy scales closed this turbulent piece with a final flourish. Prokofiev finally settled in Moscow in 1936.

The single movement Piano Concerto no. 1 in D flat major, written in Russia at the start of Prokofiev's career, offered a complete contrast. With its grandiose opening theme, the young composer was keen to explore orchestral textures and showcase a virtuosic piano part. Lugansky gave a sensitive performance, if perhaps understated at times, caressing the keys softly one moment, but then, in a helter-skelter race set up by the muted horns as the music moves from minor to major with the return on the main theme, with a surge of energy. Jensen allowed the orchestral colours to shine through in a sensitive but muscular performance.

Written in Switzerland, Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor sombreness and passionate melodies betray the composer’s longing for Russia. We can see glimpses of the Second Symphony as its motto pervades the entire work. There was some wonderful string playing, the ten cellos singing out passionately and rhythmic violas building excitement. The slow movement had unusual combinations of horn and harp, lowest woodwind with pizzicato strings and expressive solo work from violin and flute. Finally, an exciting fugue develops galloping headlong forwards, pausing only for a warm cor anglais and a peppering of celeste chords. When a conductor dispenses with the score, it brings an extra edge to the performance as there is direct communication from the tip of the baton straight to the sections of the orchestra. Jensen, conducting from memory, was a study in eloquent willowy gesture resulting in superb phrasing, precise and detailed dynamics and some thrilling playing. It was and remains a bit of a contentious piece, shorter and perhaps emotionally shallower than the Second Symphony, but the RSNO made a good case for its re-appraisal.