Nikolai Lugansky Excels in Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Weber, Beethoven, Brahms: Nikolai Lugansky (piano) Philharmonia Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 26.6.2015 (RB)

Weber – Overture: Der Freischütz
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op 58
Brahms – Symphony No. 2 in D, Op 73


It was no surprise to see a packed Royal Festival Hall for this concert of popular 19th Century German masterpieces. The Chief Conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic, Yuri Temirkanov, was the guest conductor for the evening while his Russian compatriot, Nikolai Lugansky was the soloist in Beethoven’s G Major Concerto.

The concert opened with the overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz, which encapsulates much of the music and drama which runs through the opera. The opening was a little tentative but the subsequent pastoral tone painting and forest murmurs were well realised by the Philharmonia’s horns and strings. The transition to Samiel’s music was rather untidy but Temirkanov succeeded in getting his players back on track and the violins captured the feverish atmospheric quality of the music. Some of the subsequent passage-work in the strings was imprecise and not as well co-ordinated as it might be, although the Philharmonia redeemed themselves in Agathe’s music which was played with conviction and gusto – this really was life affirming music showing the power of goodness to triumph over evil.

Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto was written thirteen years prior to Der Freischütz and, with its striking opening for piano solo, it is one of those works which heralds the dawn of the new Romantic era. While more familiar to us in Romantic piano music, Lugansky is an excellent exponent of Classical repertoire. The opening chords on the piano were beautifully weighted and expressively nuanced. The orchestral exposition was clean and well-articulated by Temirkanov and the Philharmonia with the players working through Beethoven’s musical argument in a highly organised and structured way (although one of the oboe entries went badly awry). Lugansky adopted a very Classical approach to the concerto and his phrasing and handling of the passage-work were superb. He was scrupulous in his use of pedal so the playing was crystal clear throughout. The tone was quite dry on occasion and there was a muscularity to the playing which seemed spot on for this music. Lugansky played Beethoven’s own cadenza and there was a wonderful freshness and improvisatory freedom to his playing which made this very familiar music seem alive and new once again while the technical complexities were played with infinite ease.

The Philharmonia’s strings projected a sense of impending threat and menace in the opening of the slow movement. Lugansky produced a soft-grained, luminous sound in response that seemed to draw the audience in while at the same time caressing and seducing his orchestral partners. The gradually soothing of the orchestral beast was poetic and entrancing and was a master-class in how to captivate an audience while playing very quietly. The finale was sparkling and brilliant and the exchanges between soloist and orchestra were tight and well handled by Temirkanov. Lugansky gave us some striking and vibrant changes of texture and sonority while bringing out the witty and subversive qualities of the music. Immediately prior to the coda there was a moment of lovely intimacy between the soloist and the violas and cellos before the music reached its glowing conclusion. This was great playing by Lugansky – it would be good to hear him more often in the Classical repertoire.

The final work on the programme was Brahms’ intensely lyrical D Major Symphony which was written a year after the First Symphony, in 1876. Temirkanov is a very formal and undemonstrative figure on the platform using minimal movements and hand gestures. He and the Philharmonia did well in the first movement which had an expansive feel and was full of rich textures and vibrant colours. The cellos captured the Autumnal warmth and generosity of spirit in the composer’s reworking of his famous lullaby while the whole string section cranked up the emotional temperature in the contrapuntal development section. The Philharmonia’s principal horn gave us a beautifully worked and soulful melody towards the end of the movement.

The cellos were having a good night and played to perfection the gorgeous cantilena which opens the second movement – this was playing which really connected to the emotional truth of this music. The central section of the Adagio had an emotional rawness although I felt there was a lack of attention to detail and the balance of sound and organisation of the material was very messy at times. The third movement was a little on the slow side for my taste although there is a fair amount of latitude around the composer’s instruction of Allegro grazioso quasi Andantino. Temirkanov dealt with the abrupt changes in tempo and dynamics well although I would have liked him to inject a little more of the dance elements into the music. The strings and brass injected energy into the finale while the woodwind gave us some nimble and elegant passage-work. Much of the playing was very fine although this is Brahms at his most unbuttoned and I felt the players were being held too tightly on the leash.

Overall, there was first class playing from Lugansky and the Philharmonia in the Beethoven. The Weber and Brahms were clearly not as well prepared as they needed to be and they both sounded rather rough round the edges. The lack of attention to detail in these pieces, together with the rather unfortunate oboe slip in the Beethoven, suggests that the orchestra perhaps needed more rehearsal time with Temirkanov.

Robert Beattie

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