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Philharmonia Orchestra/Nelsons

03.03.10
Nikolai Lugansky
Financial Times (UK)

By Richard Fairman

Since November last year a cycle of Rachmaninov's major works for piano and orchestra has been threading its way through the Philharmonia Orchestra's season. The soloist, Nikolai Lugansky, is a constant throughout, but he is paired with a variety of conductors, each with his own individual hotline to the Russian repertoire.

Even at the few moments when Rachmaninov is giving Lugansky's fingers a rest, the different conductors must be keeping the pianist on his toes. At the start of the second installment, on Sunday, Andris Nelsons, the livewire young Latvian conductor currently resident in Birmingham, will have given his pianist plenty to think about.
Nelsons is never still on the podium. He leaps and crouches, leans over far to the left and right, waves the baton high and low, even his occasional stillnesses apparently calculated to surprise. That is much how his curtain-raiser - the Overture to Verdi's La forza del destino - sounded, too. It made exaggerated lurches in speed or dynamics, the mark of a conductor full of flair, but a long way from the plain speaking of a composer such as Verdi.

Lugansky is not that type of pianist, so a certain tension in their performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2 could have been predicted. The solo part was played with exemplary balance of power and expression. Lugansky judged even passages of accompaniment perfectly so that they spoke with life and energy (though Nelsons played his part, keeping back the brass so that his soloist was not overwhelmed). The best of the performance, though, was when Lugansky had control, pacing the concerto with unfailing naturalness. Wherever the conductor took the reins, Nelsons was too keen to impose points of his own.
After that, Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances came across more straightforwardly than expected. Nelsons demands 100 per cent concentration from his players and the Philharmonia worked hard for him. This was not the dark-hued, morbid Rachmaninov that many conductors find in the Dances , where the "Dies Irae" intones its gloomy chant, but a bright-eyed performance in which every player seemed to be under a spotlight.