Philharmonia Orchestra/Nelsons Nikolai Lugansky – Verdi & Rachmaninov

La forza del destino – Overture
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Bob Briggs

Reviewed: 28 February, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Andris Nelsons. Photograph: Marco BorggrevePart two of the Philharmonia Orchestra/Nikolai Lugansky Rachmaninov Piano Concerto cycle got off to a cracking start in this afternoon concert with a very exciting performance of the Overture to Verdi’s “The Force of Destiny”. Quite why a Rachmaninov festival should include Verdi is beyond me for, even if Verdi was Rachmaninov’s favourite composer, his piece didn’t fit here. Rachmaninov would have been better served with something Russian, such as a couple of Liadov’s delightful miniatures. But with resplendent brass and plaintive woodwinds we were given a satisfying opening.

Nikolaï LuganskyIt is easy to understand why Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto has become so popular; good tunes, a fantastically brilliant virtuoso solo part and sparkling orchestration all work together to dazzling effect. Lugansky’s virtuosity cannot be denied and he was in full command of this performance, but it left me cold; there was insufficient light and shade, too few moments of reflection, and all too hard driven and unsympathetic. Andris Nelsons drew fine playing from the Philharmonia, but this only served to heighten the lack of subtlety, and deepen my sense of dissatisfaction with the performance.

Things could not have been more different after the interval when Nelsons unleashed a terrifyingly vivid performance of the Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninov’s final music (written for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra): the second movement, a macabre waltz, is a ghostly apparition and the finale a dance of death. After hearing Nelsons’s approach I realise that all three movements are dances of death. Choosing a slightly faster tempo than normal for the first movement – it is marked Non allegro, and a touch more ‘non’ would have been appreciated – he worked up the tension to fever-pitch after coaxing some gorgeous playing from the saxophonist in the soaring second theme. The middle piece was very much a haunted ballroom, and the finale, with its tolling bells and screaming brass was a hell–for–leather blind headlong rush, which caused the hairs on the back of the neck to rise in alarm and fear. Nelsons didn’t hold back for a moment and the ending was apocalyptic with the sound of the tam-tam left suspended, dying, in the air. This was magnificent, and the Philharmonia Orchestra excelled itself in sheer exuberance and brilliance.

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