Nikolai Lugansky and the LSO: Only Superlatives Suffice.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Prokofiev, Shostakovich: London Symphony Orchestra, Nikolai Lugansky, Gianandrea Noseda, Barbican Hall, London, 29.9. 2013 (GDn)

Britten: FourSea Interludes from Peter Grimes
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3
Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6

The London Symphony gave great performances this evening, the orchestra sounding distinctive, unified, and bringing vitality and insight to every phrase. Gianandrea Noseda interacted well with the players, and the orchestra clearly gave him exactly what he was looking for. He’s a curious conductor to watch, very energetic, but with all his energy focussed into small, jerky movements. It is a very clear style, though not exactly elegant, and one that always conveys the music’s drama, although sometimes bypasses its lyricism.

The concert opened with Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, and for the first few moments it seemed that Noseda was struggling to find the music’s wavelength. His conducting here was stiff and often seemed forced. Transitions were angular and counterintuitive, and accompanying textures often stood out more than they should. ‘Moonlight’ and the Storm worked better, the former because the chocolaty sound of the strings brought out the music’s atmosphere and pathos, and the Storm because, whatever his failings, Noseda is able really to bring out the drama in this sort of music.

However good the orchestral playing may have been this evening, the star of the show was undoubtedly Nikolai Lugansky. Prokofiev’s Third Concerto is the ideal vehicle for his pianism, combining as he does flawless technique, natural poetry and an ability to keep his music making unpredictable, however well-known the work. Coming onto the stage, he half resembled Prokofiev himself. His demeanour is modest but confident, his relationship with the keyboard is simultaneously intellectual and gymnastic, and, just as the score requires, his mood can change in an instant, suddenly transforming the speed, dynamic and colour in line with Prokofiev’s twists and turns. This was another excellent performance from the orchestra, and especially from the strings. Years of playing under Gergiev have clearly given them a special affinity for the early 20th century Russian repertoire, something that was even more evident in the Shostakovich that closed the concert.

But first there was more Britten. The last time I heard Sinfonia da Requiem was at the Proms earlier this year in a lacklustre reading from the BBC SO under Thomas Adès. Both orchestra and conductor quickly went on to redeem themselves with a stunning performance of the Lutosławski Cello Concerto (with Paul Watkins), but Britten’s problematic score was a low point of that particular performance. Well, this evening Noseda and the LSO demonstrated that all this work needs in order really to shine is a little TLC. After the uninspiring Peter Grimes excerpts, Noseda now fully restored his Britten credentials in a performance that had everything. Yet again, the darker aspects of the music, especially in the first movement, were elegantly conveyed through the rich string sound. And the emphatic articulations in the winds cut through with impressive power, helped in no small measure by the percussion section. But Noseda deserves just as much praise for making this piece function, despite its occasional compositional failings. Even the contrived ending, a sort of winding down of a clockwork mechanism, made perfect musical sense here, a rare feat indeed.

The concert ended with Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony. What’s this – an LSO Shostakovich performance without Gergiev? He was here in spirit though, in the impressively idiomatic way the orchestra handled the score. Noseda’s reading was good, although perhaps a little less nuanced and dramatic than Gergiev would have produced. It occasionally seemed that he was running on autopilot, especially in the second and third movements, where little effort was made to bring out specific details of articulation or counterpoint. But it certainly had momentum and drive, especially the finale, a movement that shows off all the strengths of this orchestra.

A mixed showing then, from Noseda, for whom the Sinfonia da Requiem was the high point of the evening. But for the orchestra’s performance, and for Lugansky’s, only superlatives suffice.

Gavin Dixon