A concerto of paradoxes and some great French music: the Strasbourg Philharmonic at Cadogan Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, Rachmaninoff, Franck, Ravel: Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra / Marko Letonja (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 13.2.2024. (AR)

Nikolai Lugansky plays Rachmaninoff at the Cadogan Hall © @sisiburn

Berlioz – Roman Carnival Overture
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No.2
Franck – Le chasseur maudit
Ravel – Mother Goose Suite; La valse

The Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra are presently on a five-date British tour under the baton of Marko Letonja. The exquisite sound of the players reminded me of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, with its eloquently distinct soundworld, something which is perhaps becoming a thing of the past with some of the international orchestras we have become accustomed to hearing today. Sitting in the upper gallery of Cadogan Hall, I imagined myself as a single-microphone Mercury Recording for I had the perfect balance of sound and could hear detail as never heard before; but this was also due to conductor who knew how to balance the orchestra. The acoustic of Cadogan Hall, arguably superior to those at the Barbican Hall and Royal Festival Hall, unquestionably helped too.

Berlioz’s old ‘potboiler’ overture, Roman Carnival, was given an unusually broad, measured and reserved reading which actually made it sound far better than it is, even though it is one of the most played works by the composer. Despite a lack of inspiration and innovation amongst Berlioz overtures, the Strasbourg Philharmonic had the ideal chance to show off its timbre with great panache and did so very well.

The Russian pianist Nikolay Lugansky thankfully eschewed the usual meretricious bombast and flashy virtuosity associated with Rachmaninoff’’s Piano Concerto No.2 giving us a performance of unusual subtlety and reserve.

Indeed, the opening chords faded in giving us the paradoxical sensation of beginning without starting and out of nothing came notes that floated above and beyond the piano as if emanating from the hands not the piano; a most strange, even rather unique, sensation. Likewise, the Adagio sostenuto had an eerie ethereal quality rarely heard and again negating the customary schmaltz often indulged in here. A plethora of paradoxes prevailed throughout his playing: a subdued extravagance, a distant intimacy, a flamboyant reserve, a tempered intensity. The concluding Allegro scherzando had yet more paradoxes: an airy gravity, a heavy lightness, yet again defying the logic of binary opposites.

The Strasbourg Philharmonic and conductor were at one with the soloist in utter unison; the strings caressingly sweet yet not so saccharine, whilst woodwind sang around the piano lovingly.

Marko Letonja conducts the Strasbourg Philharmonic at the Cadogan Hall © @sisiburn

I was really looking forward to hearing ‘live’ in concert César Franck’s seldom played tone poem Le chasseur maudit. Unfortunately, Marko Letonja seemed out of his depth in the first movement where tempi dragged so much it was difficult for the brass to play with the required musical punctuation in bite and attack. The important timpani parts seemed mimed rather than played (despite the hard sticks used).

Things slightly improved movement by movement but again the percussion were too timorous and indecisive; the concluding timpani roll and orchestral thud were etiolated and coy: what was missing was the sheer drama that we hear with Sir Thomas Beecham and Charles Munch in their own live recordings. If conductor and orchestra may have seemed a tad unfamiliar with the work the tepid audience response may also have been due to a similar lack of familiarity – and perhaps also to some of the reserved playing of the performance as well.

By contrast, Letonja and his players were on home ground and familiar fare with Ravel’s evanescent Mother Goose Suite, which was given a profoundly moving reading sounding akin to a Paul Klee miniature watercolour: magical, mysterious, and childlike. This was the highlight of the evening.

The concluding Ravel La valse lacked some swagger and panache, sounding a little too civilised, contained and controlled with the closing passages missing a certain degree of anarchy. If it were present it was surely unintended with the final bars of the score a bit messy. A disappointing conclusion to a largely wonderful evening of music making.

Alexander Russell

1 thought on “A concerto of paradoxes and some great French music: the Strasbourg Philharmonic at Cadogan Hall”

  1. Readers not at the concert might have liked to know that as well as an encore from Lugansky the concert actually concluded with Faure’s Sicilienne and the Bizet’s Farandole.

    S&H: Thank you for this addition. On a difficult day for S&H we were glad Alex could provide a review when the original reviewer was held up and could not be there.


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