United Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky Nikolai Lugansky (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.11.2014 (RB)
Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor Op 40 (final version)
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 1 in G Minor Op 13 (‘Winter Daydreams’)
This concert formed part of the South Bank’s ‘Rachmaninoff Inside Out’ series which features all of the composer’s symphonies and piano concertos. Rachmaninoff revered Tchaikovsky and admired his great English contemporary Vaughan Williams so it seemed entirely appropriate that compositions by both these composers should frame his Fourth Piano Concerto.
The LPO’s strings seemed to caress the opening chords and phrases of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis: carefully shaded phrasing allowed the music to blossom into life. Vänskä succeeded in coaxing a gorgeous luminous sheen from his players and he displayed a wonderfully innate grasp of what this music is about. The chamber ensemble at the back of the orchestra achieved a warmth and intimacy in their playing and there was a natural instinctive rapport with the full orchestra. Vänskä allowed the music to build in an expansive way while retaining the sense of religious luminosity which permeates the score. All of the solo string players did an excellent job, with their entries bringing out the sense of sweetness and the pastoral bloom of the music. I always feel this music is about trying to glimpse the divine through the beauty and wonder of the natural world and I came away with that feeling from this performance.
Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto is an unjustly neglected work and one that deserves to be heard in the concert hall much more often. Michelangeli helped to put it on the map with his legendary 1957 recording with Ettore Gracis (review): it is one of my two favourite Rachmaninoff recordings (the other is Richter’s recording of the Second Rachmaninoff Concerto). Lugansky is one of the world’s leading exponents of Rachmaninoff and a worthy advocate of this concerto. There was an excellent rapport between soloist and conductor throughout this performance. In the opening section majestic and powerful chords on the piano vied against exceptionally clear and rhythmically intricate orchestral textures. Lugansky’s virtuosity is not in question and he executed the passage work with a remarkable degree of clarity and an extraordinary digital dexterity and finesse. He also allowed the composer’s gorgeous romantic melodies to sing out and brought out the rich iridescent colours in the score. Towards the end of the movement, Lugansky showed his credentials as a chamber musician in his deft accompaniment of the flute and oboe solos. He brought an improvisatory freedom to the slow movement which had a smoky bluesy feel and there was again excellent interplay with the LPO. The last movement started off in a very polished way but it was a little safe and contained at the beginning. Vänskä was having none of that and did a great job whipping thing up and almost daring his soloist to show what he could do. Lugansky rose to the challenge with aplomb and proceeded to give us a barnstorming piece of virtuoso piano playing. As the music unfolded, one became increasingly caught up in the excitement and raw energy of the performance. Fabulous playing yet again from Lugansky – in my judgement, he is one of the few pianists around at the moment who can give Michelangeli and Richter a run for their money in this music.
The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky’s G Minor Symphony which was one of the composer’s first major compositions. It seems to be featuring on concert programmes much more regularly nowadays which is good to see. In the first movement Vänskä and the LPO’s strings and brass did a great job cranking up the emotional temperature while the composer’s signature fairy tale music was well executed by the woodwind. The LPO’s principal oboe played the opening theme of the slow movement in a rapt and eloquent way and the LPO expertly captured the melancholic yearning of the score. The LPO’s playing of the third movement was assured but I wondered if there might be scope to make the scherzo dance a little more nimbly and lightly and to make the gossamer textures even more transparent. In the last movement the first fugato section was not as clear as it ought to be but thereafter Vänskä really nailed the fugal voicing. He coaxed the LPO to play in a resplendent way and with increasing brio bringing the concert to an exciting conclusion.
Overall, there was a lot of very fine playing at this concert and much credit is due to all the performers.