Scherzo à la russe
Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor, Op.40
Lohengrin – Prelude to Act I
Symphony No.9 in E flat, Op.70
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 4 March, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Andris Nelsons is modest, shy maybe, off the podium and acrobatic and extrovert on it. He might like to consider a music-stand set at a shorter length for its tallness here cramped his style and induced robotic and restricted actions (for all the energy he was expending); and on this occasion he also looked decidedly scruffy in casual gear when set against the ‘white tie’ formality of the members of the Philharmonia Orchestra and, indeed, Nikolai Lugansky.
Quite what the Wagner was doing in this programme is difficult to determine; it didn’t belong and it didn’t work, a seemingly random choice. Yes, there was radiance in this broadly paced account, and there would have been even more if Nelsons had arranged the (sensitively played) violins antiphonally, as two distinct beacons of light gradually coming together as other instruments swell the textures; but the climax was crudely loud and undid any spiritual transportation – check out the sloping-downwards pit in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus that Wagner designed to find that, even when they were less potent than their modern counterparts, Wagner placed the brass at the bottom of it.
Shostakovich 9 was a mixed affair, certainly played with spirit and precision but under-characterised; little drollery and buffoonery in the first movement, a slow movement that lacked shadows, a scherzo without ribaldry and a finale that was discursive and too fast with little saved for the race to the finishing post. Standing out was the fourth movement, the trombones issuing a dire summons and Robin O’Neill turning his bassoon into an imploring and lamenting mortal at-odds with his surroundings yet pleading for entry.
Earlier Nelsons had been a sympathetic and vibrant partner in Rachmaninov’s greatest work for piano-and-orchestra, the Fourth Piano Concerto, an economic and sophisticated masterpiece in which Nikolai Lugansky was in peerless form and for which his slightly dispassionate manner was ideal for music that may be less overt than Rachmaninov’s other concertante music but which is no less Slavic in its intensity or in emotional outpouring. Greater presence and clarity – sifting – was needed from the woodwinds in the opening measures; otherwise the first movement’s drive and plangent lyricism, the Largo’s bluesy melancholy and golden sunset, and the finale’s skedaddling complexity, were well-attended to – a tribute to the musicians’ close collaboration that is mandatory if this underestimated work is to make its full effect.
To open, Nelsons led a near-perfect account of Scherzo à la russe (in its better-behaved version for symphony orchestra, the original being for Paul Whiteman’s Band), an exacting account of this ebullient and pointed little gem that here syncopated with abandon and danced joyously.