Most people, myself included, probably turned up to Friday's RSNO concert for the chance to hear Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphony; indeed, the couple next to me who borrowed my programme during the interval appeared to have no idea what they'd just heard in the first half. However, that first half was every bit as fine and worth hearing.
Andrey Boreyko had selected a programme of all Russian music to sit alongside the Tchaikovsky. He led off with Anatoly Lyadov's The Enchanted Lake, a gentle yet immaculately textured curtain raiser. Here, as for much of the evening, he displayed a fine understanding that, in volume terms, less is often more. At times you needed to be able to hear a pin drop to appreciate the magical and evocative effects being created by orchestra, strings and flutes especially. It was slightly marred, therefore, by the audience around me being a little restless.
If the Lyadov was fine, Prokofiev's 3rd piano concerto was even finer. Together with pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, they found an excellent balance between the more lyrical elements of Prokofiev's writing and the more fun, frantic even, side, moving seamlessly between the two. Gavrylyuk had a strong and clean style, there was delicacy when called for but also no shortage of force when needed, but never excessively so. In addition, he had a wonderful playfulness in the faster passages. Boreyko and the RSNO's accompaniment was nicely balanced against him. There were many highlights, from the often sublime variations that made up the middle movement to the fantastically frenzied climax that marked the work's conclusion.
Afterwards, Gavrylyuk played an encore, I think Chopin's op.27/2 nocturne in D flat. It was a pity. Nicely enough played though it was, it didn't quite sit with the Prokofiev and it slightly spoilt the all Russian theme of the night.
But it was Tchaikovsky's magnificent final symphony that proved the highlight of the night. It ranks amongst my favourite symphonies and the last time I heard it live was in a fabulous reading from Charles Mackerras and the Philharmonia (why, two years down the line, they still haven't issued the recording is a mystery). I preface it in this way because that only enhances my next comment, namely that it did not disappoint. Boreyko opted for a torturously slow (in a good way) pace for the opening bars. The first movement was marked by the extremity of the contrast between these slow sections and the quicker more thrilling moments. If there was a criticism of the performance it comes here: these contrasts were perhaps a little too extreme and he lost some momentum as a result. Such was the energy of the climaxes it sometimes seemed as if the wheels might come off the orchestral wagon. But they did not. As an added bonus, the brass had a nicely brash edge, similar to that which makes Abbado's Chicago recordings of Tchaikovsky so fine. Some might perhaps have found John Whitener's tuba playing a little overenthusiastic, but to these ears he made a glorious sound.
After the first movement, though, there was even less to fault. The following allegro danced along beautifully while in the thrilling third movement, Boreyko wisely kept his powder dry early on to ensure all the more impact to the final climax. The more or less obligatory smattering of applause followed, forgiveable in my view, not least because that's exactly what I did the first time I heard it, with Ades and the CBSO. Less so were the two couples who decided to have a little chat over the opening bars of the adagio. Here, the RSNO's strings, wonderfully rich all night, came into their own. The movement's big climaxes properly tugged on the heart strings and were followed by a nice reading of the brass chorale, before it was back to the strings again to fade away, leaving just lower strings, then basses, then nothing, the end, finality.
The Pathetique is one of those works that leaves you feeling you never need to hear anything else ever again and, with it, the RSNO have got 2011 off to a fine start. (Actually, they started last week, but I was away in London so I missed it.)