Atmospheric Debussy and Lyrical Rachmaninov from Denève, Lugansky and RSNO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Rachmaninov : Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 07.10.2011 (SRT)

Debussy:                   Images
Rachmaninov:      Piano Concerto No. 3

The work of Debussy is to be a central theme of this year’s RSNO season and, building on last week’s introduction, tonight Denève cast his baton over Images.  The Iberia section is fairly well known in its own right, but it’s less common to hear the accompanying Gigue and Rondes de printemps.  Denève, in fact, played Iberia last (Debussy places it centrally), claiming justification from one of the composer’s letters.  Justification or otherwise, the decision worked well on purely musical grounds: if Gigue uses themes from England and Rondes de printemps from France, then placing Iberia last gives us a steady progression, not just from north to south but from a world of suggestion and half-light to the unadulterated sunlight of a Spanish festival.

This being Debussy, his images are imprecise and elusive but never less than atmospheric, and this nebulous world is one that Stéphane Denève is an expert at conjuring up.  At times he gently coaxed a theme – or a suggestion of a theme – out of the orchestra while at others, especially towards the end, he seemed to be strumming the orchestra like an enormous Spanish guitar.  The strings, so key to Debussy’s sound world, surged and pulsated, seemingly inhabiting a number of different states at once, and the brass sounded almost surprisingly radiant at the climax of Par les rues.  The final bars, however, were wonderfully light-hearted with full pizzicato and harps enlivening Debussy’s vivacious rhythms.

As well as having moments of radiant lyricism, Rachmaninov’s concertos are famous for their impossible virtuosity: the greatest achievement of Nikolai Lugansky tonight was to emphasise the pure, beautiful musicality of the third concerto.  Lugansky played with extraordinary legato throughout, smoothing over what can sometimes be rough edges, and emphasising the lyrical sweep of the work.  The piano seemed to caress the music rather than merely play it, and not just in the opening bars but throughout.  The fistfuls of notes certainly came, most impressively in the Intermezzo, but throughout Lugansky emphasised lyricism, integrity and songful depth rather than showiness.  Only in the final pages did he seem to go all out for fireworks, and their being withheld for so long merely underlined their impact.  Denève’s poetic direction of the orchestra supported him wonderfully, providing a performance where, unusually in my experience of Rachmaninov concertos, everything worked.

Simon Thompson