Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale is not the most successful of his earlier works, so it was bold of LPO to use it open the latest concert in their series called “Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journeys”. Doubtless it was there partly because the evening's programme was entitled “Once upon a time” and would close with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade based on the The Arabian Nights. Stravinsky’s opera “The Nightingale” is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy story, “The Emperor and the Nightingale”. Its long compositional gestation, either side of The Firebird, produced a stylistic hybrid. When Diaghilev suggested salvaging a ballet from it, this 20-minute orchestral distillation was born, using some of the post-Firebird music. Often it simply converts vocal music to an instrumental equivalent.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Thus the Nightingale’s music, initially written for coloratura soprano, is given to the flute, and the LPO principal Juliette Bausor was serene and ecstatic from her fluttering initial cadenza onwards. The Emperor’s lively celebrations – with hints of Petrushka’s Shrovetide Fair – were vividly realised, as was the strange evocation of the rival mechanical nightingale. The touchingly plangent tenor song of the Fisherman is transferred to the trumpet, but it is hard to imagine many tenors matching the sweet tone and phrasing of Paul Beniston’s trumpet as he closed this elusive work.

The filling in this Russian fairy tale sandwich was Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Perhaps an odd choice, but this final major work of the composer also looks back nostalgically to an irretrievable past, just as Stravinsky’s impulse for his opera was to recapture the lost beauty of the fairy tale world of his childhood. Or perhaps it was just to let us hear the fine soloist, Andreas Brantelid, in a work he first played on his debut aged 14. He’s now just into his thirties, but it still sounds like it’s a special work for him. From the opening chords and the recitative that follows it was clear he commanded a rich sound and solid intonation through the range, right up to the ascent that brings in the first subject. That theme he played with the freedom of phrasing it needs if it is to sound more than merely meandering or wanly wistful. The second movement’s introduction was expressively hesitant, before launching into a swift main tempo with plenty of dash and fantasy.

The Adagio was more dream-like than heavily nostalgic, (as if du Pré had never made her recording). Only the finale lacked the last degree of rhythmic lift to set the seal on what was never less than a very good performance. The audience clamour could be silenced only with an encore – a stately account of the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1 in G major.

Rimsky sometimes got in a muddle over forms and titles calling Scheherazade a ‘Symphonic Suite’, but no one would have quibbled if he had called it a symphony. Four movements of the traditional sequence, a finale that begins and ends in the same key as the opening movement, cyclic use of themes with a triumphant return of the main theme near the close. The existence of a quasi-programme – Rimsky had reservations over that too – would not have stopped Berlioz calling it a symphony. After all, the basic programme premise, of Scheherazade’s tales postponing an undesirable outcome until a better one is found, fits the long-term delay and eventual transformation that would be at least a plausible (bar-room) definition of symphonic form. I don’t know if Vasily Petrenko has a view on this matter, but there was a sweeping power and coherence to his interpretation that made it sound symphonic. That final return of the Sultan’s theme, heralded by a convincing ritardando and with a superbly timed brass ‘wallop’, was as satisfying as any Brucknerian equivalent.

The work is usually lauded for its colourful orchestration, but when the orchestra assembles you wonder why. Where are all the exotic instruments? Yes, we have a harp and five percussionists, but the rest is quite normal – woodwinds in pairs, standard brass complement, strings. But they are rarely used to create exotic blends like Wagner, for Rimsky likes primary colours, often using whole sections alone or solo instruments. The solo contributions are so numerous, and often so taxing, that he might even have called it a ‘concerto for orchestra’. The LPO rose to every challenge in this very fine account. The leader has a prominent role throughout, and Pieter Schoeman was outstanding. But so was everybody else, so that Petrenko took time at the end to have their excellent contributions acknowledged. This is a golden age for fine conductors of the big Russian orchestral pieces and Petrenko is among the best. And whether it’s formally a suite, symphony or concerto, this Scheherazade was a compelling drama.