Guest symphony orchestras are always a treat for the regular audience at Sage Gateshead, offering as they do a different repertoire and sound to the chamber orchestra world of Sage’s resident Royal Northern Sinfonia, and this year’s first visitors, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra brought a programme that slotted nicely into RNS’s year long theme of “Song and Dance”.

Ravel’s La Valse made for a pleasing starter before a main course of Rachmaninov, a ‘choreographic poem for orchestra’ describing whirling crowds in a mid-19th century Viennese ballroom, although this vision of a vanished glamour is definitely seen through the intervening shadows of the First World War. That shadow fell right across the opening bars, as Petrenko started the double basses and timps almost inaudibly, a rumbling that we felt more than heard. Ravel’s incredible talent for orchestration is on full display in this piece, with amazing splashes of colour from the winds, particularly the shimmering flute scales in which the RLPO’s flute section mimicked the harps in their crystalline precision. The brief fortissimo explosions which Ravel described as light of the chandeliers blazing through the ballroom created tantalisingly brief moments of excitement and joy.

There was joy throughout Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor too, in a performance that stripped away the sentimentality that so often comes with this particular piece. Soloist Alexandre Tharaud began very softly and tenderly, with just the occasional heavy touch adding weight in the left hand. There were times during this first movement when his playing was so delicate and clean that he could have been playing Bach and the long high trill in the second was astonishingly even and controlled as it faded away to nothing.

Petrenko balanced the orchestra so that the piano lines were never lost, even in the loudest bits. The RLPO strings sang ravishingly in the unbroken flow of the main theme of the first movement, with Petrenko using the line and momentum to keep any excessive emotional wallowing at bay. I wasn’t completely convinced by all of the RPLO brass and wind sections during this concert, particularly in some of the ensemble passages of the Symphonic Dances, but the high horn solo at the end of this first movement was beautiful in its lyricism and tone and in the flute solo at the beginning of the second movement matched Tharaud’s intimacy, so that it felt like chamber music.

After the dreamy secrets of the second movement, Petrenko powered straight into the third, waking up into a bright dawn. This concerto is the product of Rachmaninov’s creative revitalisation after the disaster of his first symphony, and in this movement Petrenko really gave a sense of the energy and potential that must have accompanied this reawakening. The third movement in particular was bright with happiness, culminating with Tharaud’s jazzy flourishes in his final solo passage.

After the interval, we jumped from the rebirth of Rachmaninov’s composing career to its glorious conclusion in his last work, the Symphonic Dances. Petrenko began quietly but firmly, with cheeky little throbs of the main theme slipping out from the violins before the trumpets rang out to signal the start of dance, as the whole orchestra piled energetically into Rachmaninov’s quirky little tune, adding a bit more power to each repetition. Introducing the folk-like melody in the middle section, the relaxed alto saxophone solo followed by the luscious strings looked back nostalgically to a Russia that had vanished as conclusively as the Vienna of Ravel’s waltz.  

All three movements of the Symphonic Dances switch between fast-paced and more reflective moods, and the sombre parts of the second movement particularly recall the romanticism of Rachmaninov’s symphonies as the music oozes from one rich chord to another. Leader Thelma Handy set the tone with the vibrancy of her solo, and the whole movement was punctuated by some finely controlled crescendo-diminuendos from the muted trumpets.

Much of the third movement feels like a pessimistic dance with dance, accentuated by gongs, xylophone and glockenspiel. Petrenko made much of the skips and syncopations in the rather eerie jig and the flutes added a particularly sinister note against the warmer strings. Petrenko piled on the tension that leads up to Rachmaninov’s final use of the medieval Dies irae chant, a tune that has haunted so much of his music, and it’s here in this last dance that you really have the sense that Rachmaninov knows and intends this to be his final work. The Dies irae is not the end though, and Rachmaninov looks forward, joyously to life after death as the medieval latin chant is taken over by a quotation from the movement of his All Night Vigil that describes the Resurrection. The strings of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic filled these final bars with warmth and joy before the tumultuous end, a celebration of Rachmaninov’s life and music.