As Vasily Petrenko continued to celebrate ten years at the helm of the RLPO last week, the irony behind the all-Russian line-up of Stravinsky, Scriabin and Glière was not lost on the Liverpool audience. Polarising two of the most highly-charged and prophetic compositions of the early 20th century, Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring against the Concerto for Harp in E flat by Glière – an overtly Romantic expression of Russian nationalism with Tchaikovsky as its model – was a masterstroke of programming, not just for the pleasing effect of sandwiching a gently elegant soundworld between two electrifying ones, but for the point about timing, and the fact that the concerto's date of composition succeeded the others' by a good quarter of a century.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty
First performed in 1908, Scriabin's symphony-cum-tone-poem, Poem of Ecstasy (also known as Symphony no. 4) foreran The Rite of Spring in shaking the foundations of the musical establishment. With its harmonic volatility and dazzling orchestral dexterity, this 20-minute symphonic odyssey represents the height of Scriabin's powers as he strove to encapsulate the fervent extremes of his unique esotericism. Like The Rite of Spring, it is scored for very large forces (the more remarkable for being conceived, as with Rite, with only the use of a broken-down piano – in Scriabin's case, one which was three semitones flat), but on this occasion its augmented orchestra – including eight horns, organ, Russian bells and multiple string divisi – sounded less voluminous than it looked. No doubt Petrenko's trademark assiduous attention to dynamics, enhanced by the Philharmonic Hall acoustic, helped to project more a sense of tonal richness than of loudness, as did the cohesive playing of the strings and the brass section – an astonishingly tight-sounding ensemble considering the size of their forces.

Petrenko delivered a strikingly assured and resolute performance, navigating the twists and turns of the score with sinewy, balletic ease. Direct, efficient and economical, and entirely without recourse to gratuitous gesture, this was a virtuoso account warmly received by an audience so obviously apprised of the considerable challenges of the piece and who didn't care to wait for the baton to come down from the climactic final C major chord before demonstrating its appreciation.

Perhaps due to the intrinsic limitations in sound and the difficulty in shrugging off its traditional associations, the harp still struggles for its composer champions and, given the dearth of concertos in its repertoire, it's not surprising that Glière's remains a regular staple of the harp concert circuit. Next to the complexities of its companion pieces on the programme, the concerto's 19th-century-style conservatism feels lightweight and innocuous, but as one of the few large scale works to successfully capture the idiom of the instrument, it has earned its place as a cherished showpiece, and the 'easy-on-the-ear' lyricism provided a counterbalancing cushion of palette-cleansing tonality.

Perhaps not the best piece with which to discern the technical edge of one virtuoso harpist over another, but a challenging enough one nonetheless, it was presided over by Catrin Finch with charismatic ease. Her muscular playing extracted levels of detail which might, in other hands, have been less obvious, and whilst some of the lower register playing was inevitably subsumed by the denser instrumental textures (fewer violins would have made for a better balance), there was relief in the lighter-scored passages and in the gloriously unfettered cadenza of the first movement. The performance was marred somewhat by misjudged moments of ensemble, with the lines of communication between soloist and conductor seeming at times curiously uncoordinated, notably in the second movement, whose theme and variation form called for a tighter organisation of the structural punctuation.

From the retrospective conservatism of Glière to the iconoclasm of The Rite of Spring – a work 30 years ahead of its time and still possessing the power to shock and inspire – Petrenko was back on form with an account which sustained the atmosphere of primordial menace without ever losing its grip on structure, pacing and the all-important metric accents. The same attention to dynamics and colouristic detail that worked so well in the Scriabin was deployed with crisp-edged control and enhanced by fine playing in both the solos and sectionals, notably from the groaning cellos in Part One's “Round-dances of Spring” and the chilling brass and woodwind mix in “Ritual Action of the Ancestors” of Part Two. Once again, the hall's acoustic blushed in all the right places: tuttis were terrifying, horns and brass burnished and percussion (significantly bass drum and timpani) thrilling but not booming.

A standing ovation was given by a rapturous full house: lasting the best part of five minutes, it was most warmly deserved and a sign that, a decade on, Liverpool's affection for their adopted Russian son shows no sign of abating.