Philharmonia Orchestra/Saraste Nikolai Lugansky – The Isle of the Dead … The Firebird

The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
The Firebird [1945 Suite]

Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd

Reviewed: 16 April, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Jukka-Pekka SarasteRachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead is comparatively infrequent in concerts, and very welcome when as carefully prepared as here. Jukka-Pekka Saraste treated the opening with perhaps a shade less atmosphere than it can generate and the performance didn’t really achieve idiomatic flexibility until well under way. The central section needed greater contrast, but Saraste elicited very characterful playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra, notably solos from Nigel Black on horn and from clarinettist Jennifer McLaren, but the woodwinds tended to disappear in the big climaxes, submerged beneath a tidal wave of strings and brass. The final build-up achieved great urgency and the long-breathed melodic lines vernacular ease. The silence after the final chord was very effective.

Nikolaï LuganskyRachmaninov’s ubiquitous Second Piano Concerto can still draw a large audience. Nikolai Lugansky presented a very traditional reading, spacious in the opening, without spreading the chords and bringing elasticity of pulse, which Saraste and the orchestra partnered well. The woodwinds again shone in solo passages, notably in the slow movement, and the violins responded with superbly refined and subtle playing. The finale achieved considerable drive, though Lugansky experienced a couple of splashy moments. The applause was long and loud, drawing an encore from Lugansky, which I was unable to identify, but its delicacy acted as a well-judged foil to the previous excitement.

Saraste’s approach to the third Suite version of The Firebird (1910), the 1945 version followed those of 1911 and 1919, was of romantic warmth rather than the more-apposite clarity and precision. The opening lacked of mystery, the bass sound inviting rather than menacing, and was too fast. Nevertheless the Philharmonia Orchestra responded with superb playing, even if the style was misjudged. Stravinsky’s revised scoring was as deliberate attempt to get away from his romantic past, and his own conducting of this music, though technically fallible, reinforced this modernist stance. For all the fine playing, ‘Infernal Dance’ failed to shock. ‘Lullaby’ was very beautiful but the transition to the ‘Finale’ was too matter-of-fact, and too loud, while the closing bars would have benefited from a more spacious tempo. There was though no doubting the mutual admiration of the Philharmonia musicians and Saraste.

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