Who knew glaciers were so musical? Arensky Glacier, named for the composer of this all-Russian programme’s opener, flows south from Beethoven Peninsula into the north end of the Antartic’s Boccherini Inlet. There is nothing chilly, however, about the 1894 Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky by Anton Arensky (1861–1906). The teacher of Scriabin and Rachmaninov, Arensky drew his theme from “Legend”, the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s 1883 Sixteen Songs for Children, Op. 54, finding sufficient inspiration there for seven variations.

Mikhail Tatarnikov
Mikhail Tatarnikov

Lovers of Tchaikovsky’s string writing would take to this piece. Its rich harmonies, skilfully placed in resonant areas of the instruments, sounded wonderful here. The cellos delivered much of the early melodic interest with easy warmth. On a first hearing, my favourite of these variations for strings was the sixth. This Allegro con spirito, wonderfully played here, was the least Russian sounding of the seven and could have passed for, say, Holst or Warlock. The music is definitely romantic, perhaps even sentimental, but somehow that seemed just fine, especially when delivered with honest tenderness as it was here. This felt particularly true in the final variation which, following a few seconds of ghostly harmonics, settles into a warmer tone. Mikhail Tatarnikov’s baton, replacing that of a convalescing Neeme Järvi, moved with an elegance which matched Arensky’s phrases, before being put aside for the remainder of the programme. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece by a much-neglected composer.

Prokofiev is much less romantic, especially in works written to showcase his muscular piano technique. Happily, such works also showcase fine orchestral writing, as in his 1921 Piano Concerto no. 3. For example, students of orchestration couldn’t fail to notice that castanets punch well above their weight. Another interesting touch was opening a piano concerto with solo clarinet, ably handled here by John Cushing. An stunning, hazy string chord follows before the Allegro proper takes off.

Last seen in the Usher Hall in October 2011 performing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 with the RSNO, soloist Nikolai Lugansky looked and sounded assuringly relaxed in the ostentatious opening piano figures. This is a work of great contrasts. There are moments of driving urgency, such as the opening Allegro’s scurrying cadenzas, thrillingly conveyed by Lugansky; there are others where the music sounds as though it is in free-fall. During such passages, Lugansky often looked heavenwards as though to tap into the gravity-free essence of these passages. The central movement echoed the theme and variations model of Arensky, albeit in a very different language. The 27 years separating the two pieces account for a small part of this. However, huge differences in musical personality surely account for the lion’s share. Prokofiev’s sardonic touch was at its best in this movement, based on an awkward Gavotte. Lugansky and the orchestra were extremely impressive in their seemingly intuitive response to this mercurial music. The closing flourish prompted enthusiastic applause from the audience – not quite a full house, but full in appreciation.

If my introduction to Tchaikovsky had been his 1885 Manfred Symphony, as opposed to the passage from The Nutcracker used in 1970s television adverts for Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut, I might have warmed to his music sooner. This work, which charts the final hours of Byron’s eponymous 1817 antihero, has one of music’s most no-nonsense openings; deep, dark, dissonant woodwind chords, answered by strident down bows in the strings. This programme of ever increasing forces saw the arrival of a third bassoon, bass clarinet, cor anglais, tuba and three additional percussionists. That one of these was manning tubular bells could have alerted a Manfred debutant to the possibility of unhappy fate. I’m struggling to think of a moment where this instrument heralds joyous news.

The Vivace con spirito features what sounded like fiendish woodwind writing. This is in no way to suggest that the players sounded like they were struggling; au contraire, I was simply amazed at the speed of musical processing displayed, with no reduction in quality of phrasing. The was more lovely wind writing, sensitively played by this fine RSNO section, in the Pastorale, whose opening bars reminded me of The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. The closing Allegro con fuoco, featuring a manic fugue and a chorale upon Manfred’s death was dramatically delivered by this fine orchestra, by now numbering 93, including organist Michael Bawtree, providing sepulchral gravitas upon Manfred’s demise.

Many works whose conception was as complex as this one might not have seen the light of day. Since its difficult birth it has met with criticism for falling between programmatic and symphonic stools. My personal feeling is that the world is a better place for its creation, and many people’s worlds are so thanks to this performance.