Sequence of moods with Vladimir Ashkenazy

Nikolai Lugansky
London Evening Standard

By Nick Kimberley

A blast of Northern air swept through the Festival Hall last night, but did it chill the soul? Not a bit of it. A Russian soloist (pianist Nikolai Lugansky) and conductor (Vladimir Ashkenazy) played music by a Norwegian, a Russian and a Finn; only the orchestra was British.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto is a muscular piece, and Nikolai Lugansky is a muscular player. This was the last of four UK performances in a week that Lugansky has given with the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy, yet the performance was anything but routine.

While the concerto’s forthright gestures come naturally to Lugansky, he also locates the poetry in moments of quiet rhapsody: time seemed to stand still in the first movement’s cadenza. After a doleful horn solo had gently ushered in the second movement, Lugansky conjured a dream-like quality that was utterly entrancing, while the finale strutted mischievously.

Ashkenazy’s reading of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony had its heart on its sleeve, although it didn’t wallow. The layering of strings was smooth and even, cellos and basses moaning darkly, while wind solos were perfectly articulated (none more so than the Adagio’s aching clarinet solo).
It would be misleading to say that the symphony simply flew by but Ashkenazy kept the dramatic tension tightly coiled. 

The concert opened with some of the incidental music Sibelius wrote for Maeterlinck’s play, Pelléas et Mélisande. A sequence of moods rather than a unified piece, it made you long for the opera that Sibelius never wrote.