Weight, Craft and Diversity of Scottish Orchestra’s Strings

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Arensky, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky: Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Mikhail Tatarnikov (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 15.03.2013 (SRT)

Arensky: Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3
Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony

If you’ve heard of Anton Arensky at all, then the chances are that it will have been through his Tchaikovsky Variations. He was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov’s, but Arensky was more open to the westernised influence of Tchaikovsky than the Slavic approach of his teacher, and he took the theme from Tchaikovsky’s Crown of Thorns carol as the basis for this set of variations, composed as a tribute to the older composer a year after his death. It’s a lovely theme and Arensky turns it into a pleasant piece, but the variations never do anything particularly interesting with the melody, until the beautifully subdued ending, and so Arensky has remained a footnote in Russian musical history.

It’s a good showcase for a string orchestra, though, and the sound is similar to that of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, Russian music heard through a western filter. It was that, furthermore, that I found most interesting in the RSNO’s playing of the Manfred Symphony. Despite the magical and weighty colouring which Tchaikovsky gives to the winds and brass in this pictorial work, it’s the strings that bear the expressive weight of this piece, and they bear its emotional burden too, not least because they tend to play the eponymous anti-hero’s theme when it recurs. The RSNO strings had to inhabit an enormously diverse world of sounds tonight, then, and they did so very successfully. In the first movement, for example, when the strings first take up Manfred’s theme it reeks with tragic potential, almost as though it is weighed down with its own seriousness. A few minutes later, though, the strings have to introduce the theme of Astarte, which is still serious but more vulnerable, even withdrawn, almost to the degree that it feels unfinished. These two themes, around which the whole symphony pivots, sound as though they come from entirely different universes and, much as I was impressed by the filigree winds in the waterfall scene, the lyricism of the Pastorale or the volcanic brass and percussion of the infernal finale, it was the weight, craft and sheer diversity of the string sound that stuck with me the most. Mikhail Tatarnikov, a late stand-in for an indisposed Neeme Järvi, had an impressive sense of the work’s architecture and he orientated it around the recurrences of Manfred’s theme which seemed to act like a baleful influence, directing the music into dark and ominous regions every time it appeared.

He managed to strike sparks with Nikolai Lugansky, too, in the Prokofiev concerto. Tatarnikov seemed most taken with the work’s quirky, even cheeky side. Luganksy was interested in that too, but played his part with a silky legato overlaying his quicksilver virtuosity. While these two approaches might have threatened to derail the concerto, they ended up providing some very exciting chemistry, especially in the outer movements, and the rhythmic dynamism of the final pages was thrilling.

It was announced this week that the RSNO will open this year’s Edinburgh International Festival with this concerto. For full details click here.

Simon Thompson