Festive Overture, Op.96
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 5 November, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
With its rich strings and polished winds the Philharmonia has generally excelled in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony – one recalls fine performances with Kurt Sanderling and Tugan Sokhiev – but on this occasion something extra took place. It was as though a collective certainty had descended on the orchestra and this expansive work – given here in what (without a score to hand) seemed to be its most complete version – moved inexorably forward, passing in a flash.
Much of the credit for this must be down to Mikhail Pletnev who was in self-evident command of the work’s every inner detail. Occasionally Pletnev the pianist can be infuriatingly whimsical (although never boring), but as a conductor he seems to possess precisely those qualities which informed Rachmaninov’s own conducting; so far as we can judge from the composer’s recordings of his Third Symphony and The Isle of the Dead, these included a patrician precision and finesse together with a sense of power held in reserve to be fully unleashed only at the most climactic moments.
If the art of conducting is to obtain the maximum result with the minimum of obvious physical effort, this was a masterclass. Like a great movie-actor the effect of whose every minimal gesture is magnified on the screen, Pletnev’s slightest move elicited the clearest of responses from an orchestra clearly transfixed by the alchemy taking place in front of them; the musicians watched him like hawks, even when not playing, and moments such as the scherzo’s deadpan close had an inner unanimity seldom encountered. Elsewhere, climaxes were patiently built and gloriously achieved, especially the work’s final apotheosis which can sometimes seem like one climax too far. Despite a fair degree of flexibility regarding tempo, the line was never lost.
There were notable contributions from Barnaby Robson in the slow-movement clarinet solo and Jill Crowther’s cor anglais consistently produced an extra frisson. Both in the symphony’s and the piano concerto’s all-important solos, the Guest Principal horn-player, Alec Frank-Gemmill shone throughout, producing a depth of tone reminiscent of Alan Civil.
If neither the First Piano Concerto nor the Shostakovich Overture were quite on this level of inspiration, they were both nonetheless extremely fine. The concerto – given with a much reduced string section – was marked by an unusual but very welcome restraint. Nikolai Lugansky is sometimes thought of as a cool customer but his and Pletnev’s refusal to overplay was very welcome, and Lugansky’s precision and technical assurance were perfectly in place in the skittering virtuosity of the outer movements. The slow one, a Chopinesque Andante, was distinguished by the most sensitive bassoon contribution from Robin O’Neill and by some magically whispered string pianissimos at its close.