Liadov crafted more than his fair share of curtain-raisers – but to what end? One might imagine The Enchanted Lake – an atmospheric and beautifully scored miniature – as the prelude to an opera or full-length ballet; there would be method and consequence in that. But as a piece in its own right its six minutes of colouristic intrigue amount to little more than just that – reflections of Wagner’s “forest murmurs” as seen in and through the unfathomable waters of Liadov’s imagination.
It was exquisitely played by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko – all super-hushed dynamics and quivering string tremolandi – but apart from the fact that Liadov was Prokofiev’s teacher, a subliminal connection to the latter’s Fifth Symphony at the climax of the evening, it might have been better to launch the concert from the ubiquitous but still arresting horn call and hectoring declamation of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.
Except that this is not how Nikolai Lugansky and Petrenko chose to pitch its arrival. Overheated bombast had no place in their framing of those familiar opening measures. Instead a certain nobility prevailed with Lugansky pulling back on the gestural chordal accompaniment while Petrenko lent the big tune (the one that vanishes without trace once its preludial purpose is fulfilled) a distinctly classical decorum. There is this tension in Tchaikovsky between the classical and the romantic and both musicians here were more than a little mindful of it. The classicism was brilliantly served in Lugansky’s super-clean articulation, the romantic in his poetic realisation of the clarinet-led second group and his limpid account of the slow movement, not least that wonderfully mercurial middle section. I loved his unhackneyed phrasings and the wholesale tussle between repose and upheaval in the first movement cadenza. And despite those moments of tasteful withholding there were thrills and spills aplenty in the fusillades of double-octaves and other such showy pyrotechnics. A little Medtner encore nicely offset the ubiquity of the concerto.
Petrenko’s reading of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony then hit the spot in ways that only a truly instinctive conductor can. Petrenko has a sixth sense for the right tempo and managed to hold fast to the epic tread of the first movement whilst accommodating all those tricky quickenings of pulse within it. There was a tremendous sense of great spaces being crossed and an unsettling majesty. Trumpet-crested tuttis carried us all the way to the ice-breaking climax where the unequivocal dissonance spelled out that the triumph of the human spirit comes at a price.
Even the Romeo-and-Juliet-infused slow movement – wonderfully played by by shot-silk Philharmonia strings – has a blade of dissonance through its heart. Petrenko really nailed the scarifying brass chord at the point of penetration but then consoled us with those ravishing traceries of sound in the closing bars.
Then there was the biting irony of scherzo and finale, the Cadillac-trio of the former deliciously relaxed and insouciant and in vivid contrast to the trenchant motor rhythms either side of it. Again exciting work from the strings and a sardonic edge to the winds. They are likable hooligans in the finale led off by the Jack-the-lad clarinet but it’s here that Prokofiev’s “infernal machine” really goes into overdrive. The amazing coda – like a dog chasing its own tail – was thrillingly engaged here with that bizarre drop-out in demented solo strings really tickling the ear. Terrific stuff.