A bit of Rachmaninoff magic

05.29.10
Nikolai Lugansky
Philadelphia Inquirer

By Peter Dobrin

Any critic who rolls his eyes about confronting yet another Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 needs to experience the piece at the artistic confluence of Charles Dutoit, pianist Nikolai Lugansky, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. A great interpretation justifies its own existence.

Not that there was anything mannered or eccentric about Lugansky's performance Friday afternoon. His characteristics - a limpid sound, a large presence, and a tendency to push his playing to the outer edge of fleetness - were natural foils to some of the orchestra's tendencies. There was none of that wallowing in its own lushness this orchestra sometimes falls back on in Rachmaninoff.

Lugansky was urgent rather than sentimental, expressive but not indulgent. In the second movement, where the music morphs into a kind of scherzo, Lugansky was an unbelievably lithe partner to Dutoit's careful doling out of spare emotional manipulations. Magic.

Dutoit was key to the elements' snapping together so naturally. The orchestra's chief conductor has an ear for color and a way of pacing out drama so that it means something. In the piece's broad, final statement, he took the tempo slower than usual, and rather than bogging down, the long phrases triumphed on the basis of a rounded, high-quality sound.

If Lugansky was able to penetrate orchestral thickets, soprano Shana Blake Hill wasn't quite so lucky in Bright Sheng's The Phoenix. It wasn't her fault. The orchestral song, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's rendering of the mythical bird, worked through several distinct styles of orchestration - something aiming in the general direction of Respighi, then turning film-scorish - and much of the time it was too dense to discern any text.
The piece isn't long on substance or invention, but still, it has its sybaritic pleasures. The bowed crotales (antique cymbals) at the end came across as a surprise wisp of ether.

Hill was at times an astonishing soprano, able to pick difficult intervals out of nowhere. At one point, she's asked to find a high, quiet note from an awkward approach, and you'd never know from the way she nailed it what disaster might have lurked for a lesser singer.

It could have been equally difficult to know how carefully Dutoit shaped Mozart's Symphony No. 39 (K. 543). Yes, there were spots of fuzzy ensemble, but they were brief. Dutoit's tempos were just right; the adagio opening held a certain amount of tension, the following allegro was stately. Principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales was, once again, an ensemble factor of influence, especially in the third movement's "trio," where his arpeggios were not only a rhythmic spine, but also, color-wise, little cushions of joy.