Coriolan Overture, Op.62
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43 Tchaikovsky
Suite No.3 in G, Op.55
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
Russian National Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 18 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
After Ingo Metzmacher’s brilliant recontextualisation of Mahler’s Seventh and Andrew Litton’s bold miscellany of (pre-) historic Bach, there was always a danger that the Russian National Orchestra’s return to the Proms would seem less remarkable. Andrey Boreyko, best known as a proponent of contemporary music from the ex-Soviet bloc, failed to raise the temperature with the initial item on his inherited bill of fare, a tired and shapeless account of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture in which almost every rhetorical hiatus was punctuated by bangs, coughs and electronic noises off. Small wonder that the band’s antiphonally placed violins sounded discouraged at the start, underpowered and less than unanimous.
Things improved with the arrival of Nikolai Lugansky, ever personable and blessed with a cast-iron technique if not an infallible memory. In what was his second Proms account of the Rachmaninov, he shone in the skittering and virtuosic passages that draw from Gershwin as much as the Russian steppe. Oddly, he was less than happy with the lyrical element: his brisk but lumpy Variation XVIII, with a forced subito piano effect part-way through, was a disappointment. The rapid-fire concluding variations were thrilling though. Conductor and orchestra, much improved throughout, provided lively and characterful support and a wider dynamic range. Lugansky returned with an encore, Rachmaninov’s G sharp minor Prelude (Opus 32/Number 12). He lent it his big Russian tone but there is an emotional reticence in his playing which means that his more exploratory voicings never quite hit the spot.
The reputation of Tchaikovsky’s delightful Third Suite, once among his most popular works, was probably damaged by the frequent freestanding renditions of its final Theme and Variations (which Balanchine choreographed as a ballet in 1947). While the complete Suite made a comeback at the Proms in 1979 and 1993, today’s audiences prefer their Tchaikovsky with a heftier dose of neurosis. The Russian National Orchestra must be one of the few ensembles for which the complete score remains a party piece. Whether under Mikhail Pletnev (who was meant to be conducting this Prom) or Vladimir Jurowski, the RNO account majors in graceful precision rather than the maximisation of romantic ardour and, in so far as one could tell, Boreyko was content to follow these musicians’ lead. By accident or design he seemed more literal with the pacing of the cymbal-capped effusions of the closing ‘Polonaise’ and just a little heavy-handed in the opening ‘Elégie’ which might have worked better with less extreme contrasts of tempo. The ‘Scherzo’ was taken at quite a lick, tending to blur in the generous acoustic. One did sometimes sense the absence of a more experienced hand on the tiller but the quality of timbre, intonation and attack retained a suitably Slavic distinctiveness.
The interludes of desultory, embarrassed-sounding applause between movements were mercifully short-lived. Sadly a mysterious low hum made its presence felt, most insistently in the Paganini Rhapsody. The hall was full.