United Kingdom Prokofiev, Shostakovich: Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 20.5.2016. (SRT)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8
Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony is such a powerful piece that it’s partly fool-proof. Perhaps the composer’s darkest symphony (in a crowded field of contenders), its structure, instrumentation and shape seem almost to guarantee that the audience will be put through the wringer. Tonight, however, whether consciously or otherwise, Peter Oundjian seemed to pour all the emotional weight into the symphony’s second half. The “war machine” third movement chugged forwards with relentless severity, while the circus interval felt manic and even a little deranged. Then the great Passacaglia seemed to hang suspended over nothingness, a movement that seemed to defy time and space in its emotive power, evoking unutterable bleakness.
To my surprise, I was most impressed by the finale, the anachronistically perky ending that really has no business being there. The orchestra wore its tongue-in-cheek humour very well, but the ending, where the flute dialogues with the lower strings, was totally spellbinding, hinting at a whole universe of feeling that Shostakovich seems to point towards without actually exploring. Next to all this, the huge expanse of the first movement actually felt rather humdrum; effectively played, of course, culminating in a high-pitched climax before the seamless cor anglais solo, but somewhat devoid of emotional weight, as though displaying the horror or war without really involving you in it.
A bit like Shostakovich 8, Nikolai Lugansky guarantees you a thrilling experience too, and Prokofiev’s Second Concerto showed him at the peak of his powers. The RSNO are engaged in a Prokofiev concerto cycle with Lugansky, partly to commemorate the fact that both Prokofiev and the RSNO are 125 years old this year, and the second concerto is probably the craggy highlight in a set of virtuosic pinnacles. One of the things that has always impressed me most about Lugansky is the way he dashes off impossible piano phrases with a total lack of showiness, sublimating his performer’s ego to the music itself. He isn’t a flashy virtuoso, and that makes him all the more brilliant. His take on the first movement was beautifully lyrical, and even the mind-boggling cadenza seemed to flow from his fingers with effortless smoothness. The finale, too, saw his hands bounding all over the keyboard without him seeming to break a sweat, and he dominated the music not just in the faster outer sections but in the gentler second theme too. Scottish audiences are lucky that he has developed such a close relationship with the RSNO. There are few who play Prokofiev with his level of style.