An Evening of High-Voltage Russian Thrills

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Liadov, Tchaikovsky ,Prokofiev: Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, London 23.4.2013 (RB)

Liadov: The Enchanted Lake
Tchaikovsky:  Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op 23
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B flat Op 100

There was never much doubt in my mind that we were in for an evening of high- voltage thrills in this all Russian programme and I am pleased to say conductor, soloist and orchestra delivered in spades. Vasily Petrenko and the Philharmonia were joined for the Tchaikovsky concerto by Nikolai Lugansky, a standard bearer of the grand Russian school of piano playing.

The evening opened in relatively subdued fashion with Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake, an impressionistic tone poem that reflects the composer’s fascination with fairy tales. Petrenko and the Philharmonia did an excellent job in depicting the moonlight scene and in evoking the still and mysterious atmosphere. Petrenko allowed the music space to breathe and there was some flexible phrasing and luminous sounds from the strings. This was a light, delicately perfumed and nuanced hors d’oeuvre before the two main courses of the evening.

The Tchaikovsky B flat minor concerto is probably performed more frequently than any other concerto in the repertoire and one of the great difficulties it poses is ensuring it does not sound hackneyed and stale. Lugansky is now at the peak of his powers and he was born to play this music. He brought a freshness and vitality to the work and played each phrase as if newly imagined. He captured the grandeur of the opening statement with playing of great power and authority. He did a brilliant job in cranking up the voltage with some emotionally uninhibited and thrilling playing but without sacrificing accuracy. As one would expect from this pianist, the pyrotechnics were dispatched effortlessly and the double octave fusillades were spectacular. The principal flautist did a nice job in shaping the opening melody of the second movement while Lugansky showed us some lovely cantabile playing. The prestissimo middle section was played with quicksilver delicacy and lightness of touch. Lugansky succeeded in achieving an astonishing degree of clarity in this fleet fingered tour de force. I did wonder if Lugansky would be able to maintain this level of playing but he launched into the finale with gusto and succeeded in capturing the sweep and grand passions of the piece. The coda was one of the most electrifying pieces of piano playing I have ever heard in a live concert. Tatiana Nikolayeva thought Lugansky the greatest pianist of his generation – having listened to this, I defy anyone to disagree.

Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was written during the closing years of the Second World War and it is one of the composer’s greatest works. Petrenko is a highly expressive figure on the podium and he showed in his hand gestures and body language that he was alive to every nuance of the work. In the opening movement, marked andante,rich sonorities alternate with quieter, more translucent passages and spiky rhythmic figurations. The Philharmonia navigated the textural and rhythmic transitions in a seamless way and the transparency of the playing and attention to detail were exemplary. Petrenko did a superb job in sustaining the intensity of the piece in the latter part of the movement and I was struck by the scabrous elements of the music and sense of biting anger (no doubt Prokofiev’s response to the human cost of the conflict). In the scherzo there was excellent interplay between woodwind and strings with both sections bringing out the sardonic elements of the score. The trio in Petrenko’s hands became a character-driven drama and at one point he seemed to be flirting with the strings. The adagio is a huge rhapsodic lament and here Petrenko and the Philharmonia gave us an epic funeral march, a vast lament depicting a desolate landscape and lost generation. The finale is a mercurial rondo, genial in tone but propelled along by ostinato rhythms. Petrenko and the Philharmonia brought out the playful and spiky elements of the music – the woodwind were very good indeed. Petrenko cranked up the voltage in the exciting coda driving the work forward to its final victorious apotheosis.

Great playing all round: bravo to Messrs Petrenko and Lugansky and to the Philharmonia!

Robert Beattie