Ruslan and Ludmilla – Overture
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
Nicolai Lugansky (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 3 November, 2012
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
When Hurricane Sandy roared into the New York area on the previous Monday, bringing death and destruction, the city ground to a complete halt due to widespread power outages, flooded streets and tunnels, and no public transportation. Amazingly, by Thursday, most large cultural institutions – except for Carnegie Hall, due to a dangling crane across the street – had resumed activities. Many performers had to go to great lengths to reach their theatres and concert halls, substitutes were called in, and in the New York Philharmonic’s case, due to the loss of rehearsal time, the first half of the program was modified. Instead of Symphonic Fragments from Debussy’s music for Gabriele d’Annunzio’s The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Charles Dutoit offered the Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla, and Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody became his Third Piano Concerto, a work that Dutoit and Nikolai Lugansky had performed together recently.
Any major orchestra can play the Glinka on zero notice. The New York Philharmonic and Dutoit gave an energetic and spirited performance, only marred by overzealous timpani-playing which produced more noise than pitch. Some of the energy carried over into the Rachmaninov, robbing it of melancholy and poetry. Dutoit and Lugansky, the latter making his New York Philharmonic debut with these concerts, must have agreed on emphasizing the concerto’s virtuoso aspects, as the conductor set brisk tempos that were then pushed even further.
Lugansky has technique to spare, which he amply proved and also in his encore, Rachmaninov’s transcription of the ‘Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was impressive to see Lugansky’s hands fly, and he produced great volume, but often at the expense of sound quality. The low register of his Steinway was clangorous and metallic, the top harsh, leading to suspicions that, like Vladimir Horowitz’s instrument, it had been adjusted for a very light action to facilitate fleet finger-work, but makes it hard to control. There was a limited dynamic range, especially on the soft end, and a noticeable absence of variety of color, which hampered the expressive quality of Lugansky’s performance, notable for amazing pyrotechnics but little lyricism. The Philharmonic accompanied in the same spirit, with outstanding contributions from Philip Myers, who elicited a dark and Russian sound with slight vibrato from his horn, and oboist Liang Wang.
Enigma Variations finally provided a point of respite. Elgar’s soothing strings and engulfing waves of sound – one need only think of ‘Nimrod’ – were balm for the soul so urgently needed in a battered city. Dutoit is perfectly suited for this work; he has a fine ear for color, and he knew just how to mold the fourteen sections into a cohesive whole. The build-up from perfectly blended woodwind over pianissimo strings to the last great outburst was most impressive. The Philharmonic played magnificently, and if the unusual length of applause at the end was any indication, the nearly capacity audience was immensely thankful to the musicians for their efforts to bring great beauty and a sense of normalcy back to our lives.