Lugansky Combines Poetry and Wit In Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Englund, Prokofiev, Mahler: Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, John Storgårds (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 11.11.2016. (SRT)

Englund – Suite from Pojat

Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 3

Mahler – Symphony No. 1

One of the highlights of the Nielsen anniversary year for me was John Storgårds’ concert of the Inextinguishable Symphony with the RSNO.  This is the first time I’ve heard him with them since, and he brought that same sense of newness and raw excitement to Mahler’s First Symphony, suggesting that this is a conductor/orchestra partnership that really works.

If Mahler is going to be successful then he needs to be conducted by an architect: after all, those big moments don’t count for much unless they’re proper climaxes, with groundwork that has been carefully laid beforehand.  Storgårds knows this, and it’s central to his success.  The opening was totally unhurried, orchestra and conductor unafraid to revel in the stillness, and the appearance of the Gesellen theme felt totally natural, building to a joyful bloom.  The highlight was the finale, however, and not just because of the euphoric wave of brass that hit us at the end.  Storgårds gently teased us with the hints of the final triumph that Mahler drops into the score, whetting our appetite for more, so that the ending felt like a fulfilling summation, not just something that appears.  En route, the Ländler felt heavy yet propulsive, with proper bite to the strings and just the right amount of syrup on the string tone of the central section; and the funeral march balanced the darkness of the funeral march with a klezmer tune that was just the right side of schmaltzy.  The finale’s coda felt much too fast, blowing some of the electricity that had been built up, but on the whole I’m pretty happy to take my Mahler when he’s served up like this.

Einar Englund wove the same treatment of the same Frère Jacques theme into the music he wrote for the 1962 film Pojat, and it makes a satisfying suite that is reminiscent of Shostakovich, having the directness of the Jazz Suites, if not the jovial mood.

Meanwhile, Nikolai Lugansky’s cycle of the Prokofiev piano concertos reached its conclusion with No. 3, the most popular of the set.  Lugansky was every bit as dazzling in this one as he was in the titanic No. 2 back in May, the only other one of the cycle I’ve managed to see.  Lugansky combines poetry and wit in a way that’s quite extraordinary.  His playing in the first movement was delicate and stylish at the outset: you’d almost call it gentlemanly until the mock-dissonances of the second theme come crashing in.  But the most impressive thing about him is how casual he makes it all look.  He managed the huge run that launches the first movement’s recapitulation with total ease, and though clouds of notes were cascading out of the keyboard at the end of the finale, he didn’t even seem to break a sweat.  After that maelstrom he finished with a very beautiful and very peaceful Barcarolle from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons, which is just about as different as you could get to the fireworks he’d just produced.  Brilliant.

Simon Thompson

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