Ten years into their ongoing 'marriage', the RLPO and chief conductor Vasily Petrenko still seem delighted with each other. It has been a mutually rewarding association: Britain's oldest professional orchestra has been given a thrilling new lease of life and Petrenko a burgeoning international career. A range of award-winning recordings and boosted audience numbers testify to the partnership's appeal. But, on the evidence of tonight, there is no threat of a slide into cosy domesticity and this tenth anniversary concert was anything but the exchange of back-slaps it might have been.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

It was once asserted that any non-Briton who aspires to lead a British orchestra must at least give the appearance of appreciating Elgar, but there was nothing in this performance of Alassio (In the South) to suggest Petrenko's advocacy is anything other than genuine. An overture in the form of a travelogue detailing an Englishman's delight in a country whose warmth and light so contrasts with his own damp island, there was, perhaps, an unintended poignancy to this post-Brexit reading. But there was nothing lachrymose about the delivery from all departments of the RLPO, with particularly fine playing from the strings and horns. An ideal opener, which got things off to a boisterous start.

The second item altered the mood. Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto dates from the late 1950s, ostensibly a time when Soviet artists could breathe easier, having survived Stalin's terrors, but it captures the composer looking over his shoulder, recalling with a shudder all the contortions he'd had to put himself through in order to survive and create. For those who know to look for it, the concerto is also a work suffused with a mordant gallows humour – grimaces in the gulag, looks and sad smiles exchanged between fellow sufferers. Soloist Truls Mørk didn't quite capture this in a rather straight-faced account of the first movement, one of the composer's most striking creations – an Allegretto developed entirely from the four-note opening motif – but he received excellent support from the very sparingly-used orchestra, the peremptory horn calls that at times seem almost to 'police' the solo cello struck exactly the right admonitory note. But we could have done with more wit from the protagonist.

Mørk seemed happier in the less cryptic Moderato movement, where the soloist is granted the freedom to soar and emote denied in the introduction. This movement carries most of the concerto's emotional weight and it needs firm but flexible handling from the conductor to maintain shape and definition. This Petrenko provided with the assurance that comes from his natural authority in this repertoire and the account of the final movement, a jagged folk-dance parody drawing on the late dictator's favourite song evoking images of  the composer literally dancing on his persecutor's grave, showed the Mørk/Petrenko partnership at its finest. This is a work that always leaves its mark, even in a less than perfectly realised performance such as this.

Rachmaninov's final symphony is one of his 'American' works, conceived with the glossy strings of the Philadelphia Orchestra in mind. It was coldly received by contemporary critics and, although nowadays occupying a secure place in the repertoire, it remains a contentious work. A performance as accomplished and compelling as this one – and there may be no finer Rachmaninov interpreter today than Petrenko – ought to lay doubts to rest, but I must admit to some niggling reservations about the true emotional depth of the piece, or whether it just provides a richly upholstered excuse for showing off an orchestra. It certainly served that purpose here, with playing of hypnotic polish from the strings and particularly well-articulated work from the trumpets during the scherzo. It certainly demonstrated the confidence that orchestra and conductor have in each other and that may have been enough to justify its place on this programme.

This being a celebratory occasion (and Petrenko's birthday, no less), we were treated to an encore of Shostakovich's Tea For Two foxtrot, a perfect light-hearted piece to end on. We may speculate whether the composer was aiming for an affectionate send-up, or being viciously sarcastic, but this is a joke that everyone gets. The RLPO/Petrenko marriage looks to be in fine fettle: long may it continue!

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