Coriolan Overture, Op.62
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: 3 April, 2016
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Yuri Temirkanov (long-associated with the St Petersburg Philharmonic) opened this Philharmonia Orchestra with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture as a well-paced and vibrant appetizer. He drew alert and responsive playing and fashioned an account that crackled with tension. The opening chords had plenty of bite and sliced menacingly through the air. Despite his somewhat shapeless (baton-less) gestures, they produced a subtly varied tone and a wide dynamic range that were impressive.
Following which, the opening of Brahms’s D-minor Piano Concerto felt disappointingly lifeless. No rhetorical throwing down of the gauntlet here and the lack of rhythmic impetus and underplayed accents in violins and cellos denied any sense of dramatic urgency. According to Brahms the trills in the first theme should sound like “shrieks from hell”. Instead, Temirkanov’s understated approach was a sign of things to come in what was to be a performance that emphasised Brahms as the inheritor of Classical ideals rather than Brahms the Romantic. This can be a valid approach, but the music felt limp, and contrasts could have been more distinct: greater power from the orchestra might have placed in better relief the heart-easing first entry of the piano (marked espressivo) – played in a matter-of-fact way by Nikolai Lugansky. Technically assured and with an impressive command of the notes, his account was largely detached; much of the time emotionally in neutral.
There were, however, some fine moments such as the launch into the first-movement recapitulation where the Philharmonia unleashed some ferocious power, moments later matched by the soloist’s heroic riposte. Equally impressive were two passages of chamber scoring: for piano, cellos and two violins and then for piano, horn and timpani – both beautifully rendered. The Adagio was a dignified affair, its pace broad enough to have solemnity but one with forward momentum. Strings provided plenty of warmth and woodwinds were sensitive, with pairs of clarinets and later oboes cooing together to captivating effect. Lugansky was poised, but a greater sense of involvement would have been welcome. It was in the Finale where things perked up, marked by clarity of articulation, the violas setting in motion a trim fugue section. The peasant dance in the coda was nicely pointed, after which Temirkanov drew on fresh resources to bring about a wonderfully unbuttoned più animato. Lugansky offered a Mendelssohn Song without Words as an extra.
If the Brahms had been uneven, Enigma Variations fared better. Temirkanov often wheels out ‘Nimrod’ for encores so it was surprising to see him quite so copy-bound throughout much of this rendition. No indulgence was spared for ‘Nimrod’, its tempo just a tad too fast to allow any gravitas and the largamente towards the end was virtually ignored. Highlights, however, were the skittish Variation III (R. B. Townsend) and an explosive Fourth (W. M. Baker) replete with rasping brass. In ‘Dorabella’ violins were outstanding in their delicate murmurings and athletic in XI (George Sinclair). Temirkanov vividly brought to life these character portraits and, for the record, included the ad lib organ part at the close.