Nikolai Lugansky, Mikhail Pletnev / Russian National Orchestra
Rachmaninoff / Scriabin

KKL Lucerne, 2017-11-30

3.5-star rating

2017-12-10 — Original posting
2018-01-05 — Minor amendment about Rach 3, 3rd movement


Nikolai Lugansky (© Jean-Baptiste Millot)
Nikolai Lugansky (© Jean-Baptiste Millot)

Introduction

The Artists

I was of course familiar with the names of the two key artists in this concert, though neither of them I have heard in a live performance.

In the case of Mikhail Pletnev (*1957), I have CDs with recordings featuring him as pianist (solo works and concertos by Beethoven)., Only occasionally I came across recordings with Pletnev as conductor (or playing piano works by composers other than Beethoven), via streaming sites (such as when preparing for concerts).

It was Mikhail Pletnev who founded the Russian National Orchestra, in 1990. The orchestra is based in Moscow. It is definitely an important player among the top orchestras in Russia.

Nikolai Lugansky (*1972) may not be at the forefront of Russian pianists in terms of CD recordings, but I kept watching out for this name over the past years. His presence in my library is relatively slim (up till recently just one recording with Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto No.1), but growing. I was particularly impressed with his recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Sonata No.2 in G Major, op.37, which he recorded along with “The Seasons”, op.37a, by the same composer. This concert would be an opportunity to witness his playing in one of the foremost virtuosic concertos in the entire literature.

Venue & Setting

The concert was organized through the statuary “Cultural Percentage” of the biggest Swiss supermarket chain (the “Migros Cultural Percentage”, the obligation to spend 1% of the revenue on culture), who invited orchestra and soloist for two concerts. The same program (Rachmaninoff, Scriabin) was given at Victoria Hall in Geneva, on 2017-12-02.

Naturally, the concert in Lucerne took place in the White Hall in the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre (KKL). The hall was not sold out, but fairly full for this concert. The piano was a Steinway D-274. The podium was completely flat for this event. From my position (row 9 in the parquet seating), it was hard to see more than the first 2 – 3 rows of musicians in the orchestra.


Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, op.30

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) write his Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, op.30 in 1909. the concerto features three movements:

  1. Allegro ma non tanto
  2. Intermezzo: Adagio
  3. Finale: Alla breve

See my earlier blog post on this concerto for a more detailed description and a comparison of several recordings, including Rachmaninoff’s own performance.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3 is a cornerstone in piano literature, for various reasons: its virtuosity is notorious—and is used by many keyboard artists to show off their abilities in power and agility. Depending on which of the monstrous cadenzas is played (the standard one, or the even more challenging “ossia” version), the concerto has between around 29,000 and nearly 30,000 notes in the piano part alone (trills counted as one note). Then—still in many people’s mind—the concerto a key feature in the 1996 film Shine, based on the life of pianist David Helfgott (*1947). But all this aside, the concerto deserves its popularity mainly from its quality as a composition, its richness in catchy melodies, the (late or post-)romantic atmosphere: very nice music, no doubt!

The Performance

From his appearance on the podium, Nikolai Lugansky seemed absolutely calm and relaxed. Mikhail Pletnev followed placidly, modestly even. For the first half of the concert, he was of course hiding behind the lid of the concert grand (at least for the audience in the parquet seats).

As for the pianist: those who might have expected spectacular actions or a show that might seem to fit the fame of the concerto were perhaps disappointed. Visually, there was no circus show, no actions for the sake of getting attention, no spectacular gestures, no attention-seeking contacts with the audience, nor of course even the remotest allusions to, or danger of things getting out of control, as in “Shine“. There was also no sign of stage anxiety, no feverish activism at all, not even pearls of sweat—quite to the contrary!

I. Allegro ma non tanto

The beginning of the concerto or at least the beginning of the melody presented in octave parallels on the piano, feels a simple, natural, romantic tune. Rachmaninoff’s melody does take a definitive upswing, though, giving clear indications of more exciting, virtuosic developments, which indeed start with the più mosso section in bar 27. Often enough, at that point, we find ourselves already amidst a spectacular, virtuosic showpiece.

With Nikolai Lugansky, though, the show element was entirely missing. I would even go as far as stating that the entire concerto (in a way) was as natural and unspectacular as the initial melody. This may sound exaggerated—and it is. However, what I indeed found spectacular about this performance is that Lugansky remained unpretentious and unassuming, throughout this monstrous concerto. The artist sat upright, but relaxed, his arms and hands absolutely strain-free. It felt that he was mastering this concerto with its enormous technical challenges, as if it was one of Czerny’s studies. But even just memorizing this piano score must be a nightmare!

What we Heard

Overall, there was no piano show for the eye. But all the more the ear could enjoy Rachmaninoff’s wonderful music, his late-romantic melodies. An in this, there were those natural, smooth runs on the piano, and the care with which Lugansky treated those melodies, often hidden in a torrent of small notes. His playing was rich in agogics, and it always remained transparent, the accents and markings clear.

Throughout the work, it was the pianist who kept the control. Already at the very beginning, he set in with a slightly—almost unnoticeably—faster pace than the accompaniment. He kept close contact with the orchestra, controlled the rubato. At the same time, his facial expression never really showed the enormous concentration, the focus that are required to perform this concerto. I also found the dynamic balance very remarkable.

It fit the unpretentious appearance of the pianist that he selected the standard cadenza, rather than the fulminant “ossia” version. But even that “easier” version (easier in big double quotes!) is monstrous in itself. In Nikolai Lugansky’s hands, it sounded really fluent, clear, and differentiated.

The visual appearance may have been unspectacular (unless one takes this unassuming approach as spectacular in itself!). However, what reached the ear was all the more full of expression and emotionality. Music with a soul in the true sense of the word!

II. Intermezzo: Adagio

Quite adequately no rushing here: throughout the concerto, Nikolai Lugansky gave room & time for the lyrical segments / passages. There was a lot of wonderful lyricism in that second movement! Yet, that movement also has virtuosic aspects, and it even occasionally evolves into rhapsodic, strongly expressive episodes. In these segments, Lugansky certainly also showed power and verve. However, he never delved into unnecessary keyboard thundering: nothing was pure show here!

Prior to the virtuosic transition to the last movement, I enjoyed the very nice, warm, full-sounding cantilena on the violas.

III. Finale: Alla breve

Nikolai Lugansky kept his leadership also in the rhythmically intricate and delicate segments in the final movement. The shifting syncopes, the rhythmic opposition between solo and accompaniment strongly remind me of the last movement in the Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47 by Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957), who uses similar effects of solo and accompaniment “fighting each other’s meter”. Here, the soloist remained absolutely firm, not showing the slightest insecurity.

Too bad the Più vivo and Meno mosso segments between [51] and [54] were skipped. Did the artists feel that the movement appears excessively long? Some of that section might appear extraneous, maybe too light in its leggiero artistry for this movement? In his own recording from 1940, with Eugene Ormandy (1899 – 1985) and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the composer made omissions, too—but not the segment omitted here.

I would summarize Lugansky’s performance as devoid of show effects, but full of musicality—and phenomenal in that sense.

It occasionally happened—rarely, though—that the orchestra was a tad behind the soloist in the timing. But this was negligible, overall. Mikhail Pletnev is himself a brilliant pianist who has performed this concerto as soloist. Certainly, he knows it inside out. He was a solid and reliable accompanist with his orchestra. The Russian National Orchestra showed no flaws. Occasionally the sound balance (also relative to the solo part) may not have been entirely perfect. However, that is to be expected in an environment that the orchestra is not familiar with.



Encore — Mendelssohn: Lied ohne Worte in F♯ minor op.67/2, “Lost Illusion”

Of course, the audience would not let the pianist leave the stage with out an encore. In line with how he was seen in this concert, Nikolai Lugansky decided not to opt for a virtuosic showpiece. From Lieder ohne Worte, volume 6, op.67 by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) he selected the No.2 in F♯ minor (Allegro leggiero), sometimes named or characterized with “Lost Illusion”.

Many artists highlight the lyrical (if not even light-weight) aspects in Mendelssohn’s “songs without words”. Lugansky depicted more than slight regret over a lost illusion: he took this at a considerate pace, highlighting its pensive character—an interesting and valuable approach!


Mikhail Pletnev (© Harald Hoffmann / DG)
Mikhail Pletnev (© Harald Hoffmann / DG)

Scriabin: Symphony No.2 in C minor, op.29

The Wikipedia note calls the Symphony No.2 in C minor, op.29 by Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915) the composer’s “structurally most conventional” symphony. The symphony was written 1901 and premiered 1902 in Saint Petersburg, under Anatoly Lyadov (1855 – 1914). There are five movements to this composition:

  1. Andante
  2. Allegro
  3. Andante
  4. Tempestoso
  5. Maestoso

Scriabin cleverly links the movements by quoting common motifs throughout the symphony.

The Performance

For the Rachmaninoff concerto, Mikhail Pletnev had reduced the number of string players. Presumably, this was done to give enough acoustic space to the solo part: very much appreciated! This now was the hour of the orchestra, which we saw in its full size. It filled the podium up to the rim. Sadly, even in the absence of the concert grand, the rear part or the orchestra remained hidden to the audience in the parquet seating, due to the flat stage layout.

Mikhail Pletnev’s appearance was really friendly, gentle, modest, unassuming, maybe a little frail. He conducted with economic, but precise gestures: he knows his orchestra, the orchestra is familiar with what he expects. It’s an ensemble with 27 years of tradition and partnership with its founder and chief conductor. There is a wide mix of ages in already multiple generations of musicians in the ensemble, and it’s good to see also many young and motivated members on the podium.

I. Andante

Sure, in terms of homogeneity of sound (especially in the string section), the orchestra does not quite reach the level of top ensembles such as the Vienna or the Berlin Philharmonics. The violins, for example, don’t produce quite the silky, “shiny” sound of other orchestras. However, their tone definitely is dense, has grip and character. In comparison with what we usually hear (and expect), the vibrato is sometimes a bit on the strong side (which can affect the homogeneity of the sound). Certainly, where needed, Pletnev had a respectable, room-filling volume at his disposal. The wind soloists in this movement were excellent. I’m primarily thinking of the clarinets with their warm, soft sound.

II. Allegro

In both the first two movements, the interpretation seemed considerate, unexcited, never aggressive. Yes, there was a lot of emphasis in the climaxes, but not with an excessive “bang”, and not reaching the (often oppressive) density in Scriabin’s Symphony No.4, op.54 (“Poème de l’Extase“). The Allegro (played attacca) appeared in a measured, not overly sporty pace. Pletnev took the occasional hemiolic bars (3/4 vs. 6/8) with verve, rather than playfully and light. This fitted the overall interpretation, which I found to be expressive, rather than focusing on ultimate sound esthetics.

III. Andante

The middle movement is the longest one in the symphony. It depicts a serene (nightly?) nature scenery, with birds (nightingales?) singing—star roles for the three flautists! In several waves, the movement builds up to broad, harmonious climaxes—just to return to the nature scenes again. Ideally, I picture the flutes—marked pp, dolce—playing softer—however, on these instruments (and later the clarinets) it is impossible to play as softly as specified in the score. Very nice music, to enjoy, to dream with…

Was it just my impression that punctuated rhythms were occasionally a tad softened?

IV. Tempestoso

Already the middle movement made me thing of Beethoven’s Symphony No.6 in F major, op.68, “Pastorale”. The similarity became very obvious in this movement, Tempestoso, where the music rapidly builds up from menacing pp and momentary sffp outbreaks (with grumbling in the drums, and cymbals) to a veritable thunderstorm.

V. Maestoso

However, that’s where the analogy to Beethoven ends. The last movement (again attacca) isn’t just mere, serene gratefulness. It’s rather a Finale (Maestoso) with lots of percussion and brass playing, the sound of cymbals. For Western European tastes, it may occasionally feel a tad too emphatic, pithy, striking, like a triumph march or fanfares? Is it too catchy? Maybe—but one should see it as late-romantic music in the time and location where it was created. Finally, as stated above, and particularly in this movement, expression and atmosphere were more important in this performance than the ultimate orchestral precision and refined sound esthetics. Certainly not my favorite symphony, but very interesting to hear nevertheless.


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.



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