Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Suite No.3 in G, Op.55
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 12 December, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
This continuation of the London Philharmonic’s Turnage coverage brought (I believe) a first complete London outing for Evening Songs. Written during 1998-9, this triptych of lullabies evolved from short piano pieces written for the composer’s two sons, and a wistful intimacy pervades what is among the most lushly scored of Turnage’s recent orchestral works. From the restrained but restive atmosphere of ‘Almost Dreaming’ (soprano saxophone and flutes making their plaintive contribution), through the melodic ‘parcel-passing’ of the teasing intermezzo that is ‘In the Half Light’, to the blues inflections of the reverie-cum-nocturne ‘Still Sleeping’ – each is a miniature at once evocative and affecting. Interestingly, Vladimir Jurowski’s precise, insightful unfolding of their distinctive and contrasting qualities placed then in the highly appropriate context of the childhood-inspired music by Mussorgsky.
Mussorgsky did not feature in this programme, but Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky did. The former’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was given an incisive if not always well co-ordinated performance. Nikolai Lugansky was a little matter-of-fact in the opening variations, but brought out the pathos that informs the music from VII onwards, and drew an uninhibited response from the cadenza-like XV. The trilogy of slow variations that follows had the right inwardness – though in XVIII itself, Lugansky seemed uncertain as to the degree of expressive license to allow this most famous of inverted melodies. Some exhilarating interplay in the final six variations capped a reading which, if not as freshly inventive as his recent Rachmaninov Fourth Concerto in Birmingham, reaffirmed his credentials in a composer who is too often taken at face value in the current cultural climate.
As, in an earlier era, was Tchaikovsky – though his Third Orchestral Suite, a hit at its 1885 premiere, latterly became known mainly through the ‘Theme and Variations’ which forms its extensive finale. Actually, it is the opening ‘Elegy’, Tchaikovsky’s most searching symphonic slow movement of the period, that is the highlight, and Jurowski struck the right balance between emotional indulgence and formal poise. The ‘Valse mélancolique’ was given an unusually swift reading, with its oddly unappealingidea for violas and cellos purposefully articulated, while the ‘Scherzo’ was spry and caprice. Jurowski failed to knit the constituent variations of the finale together with quite the same rigour as did Mikhail Pletnev in a memorable performance here some years ago, but brought out the variety of Tchaikovsky’s invention and, preceded by a suave account of the cadenza-like variation from leader Boris Garlitsky, gave the closing Polonaise a rhythmic lift that rounded off the work to potent effect.