United Kingdom Liadov, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich: Nicolai Lugansky (piano), St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 02.11.2014 (SRT)
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10
The Usher Hall is the regular Edinburgh home to both the RSNO and (sometimes) the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, as well as being Ground Zero for the Edinburgh International Festival’s classical music programme. They’ve also had an International Concert season for a while, but they’ve recently rebranded it as “Symphonies for Sundays”. Future guests include the Brussels, Warsaw and Czech Philharmonics, but they kicked it off in style tonight with a genuine big-hitter: the St Petersburg Philharmonic. They were last in Edinburgh in 2012, but I found tonight’s performance much more satisfying than that one. There isn’t much to Liadov’s Kikimora, for example, but it gives these players the opportunity to show off what brilliant musical storytellers they are. The short tone-poem has a very simple opening – growling basses with a gently soulful cor anglais melody – which isn’t much to look at on the page, but they played it with such style and passion that it managed to sound folksy and original all at the same time, with a sense of space around it that really took me aback. I’m not sure that a skill like that can be attributed to much that’s more concrete than simply having music like this in your blood.
Nicolai Lugansky is a regular Edinburgh favourite (he tends to play once every season with the RSNO) but putting him with his compatriots seemed to encourage him to find a few extra volts. He’s a quiet virtuoso by habit: when he plays he scarcely seems to move a muscle, never mind break a sweat. However, that makes the torrent of notes that emerges from his fingers all the more stunning. He plays with an almost permanent sense of legato so that, even in the most majestic passages of the cadenzas, a winning smoothness seems to dominate the music. But still with all that his fingers seem to move over the keyboard in something of a blur. The orchestra matched him with playing of equally soulful warmth, particularly from the strings, and at the end of the finale when those two aspects seem finally to slot into place, the impact was electrifying.
This is the third time in 2014 that I’ve heard Shostakovich 10 in Edinburgh (the RSNO did it in May and the BBC Scottish in September), but players like this were bound to bring something distinctive to it. The vast opening movement was controlled like a slow-burning fuse. While the opening was as dark as Erebus, there was plenty of colour and light to follow, and I especially liked the trio of keening bassoons and the delicate pair of clarinets that took up the syncopated second theme towards the end of the movement. Most stunning of all, though, was the gloriously soulful string sound that kept on evolving; sometimes desolate, sometimes questioning, sometimes warm and affectionate. This was followed up by a Scherzo that was daringly fast but totally precise for all that and so was tremendously exciting (and was the only time in the concert that Temirkanov paused to mop his brow). The third movement was also unusually fast, with a glorious horn solo that throbbed with character, and the slow introduction of the finale transformed, at the drop of a hat, into an Allegro that seemed to exemplify deftly controlled hysteria, like a manic grin forced into a deadpan Russian straitjacket.
Throughout the concert it was fascinating to watch how little Temirkanov did. He beat time only seldom, and spent most of his energy shaping the sound as it emerged, but doing so ever so subtly as if stroking, moulding, sometimes almost tickling the music into being. Everything was very restrained, however, with even the biggest climaxes conjured up with the most discrete of gestures, and he topped off the evening by surprising us all with a performance of Elgar’s Salut d’amour that was as rich, syrupy and thick as it never sounds when a British orchestra plays it.