St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Nikolai Lugansky give lush reading of Rachmaninoff concerto at Kravis

04.11.11
Nikolai Lugansky, St. Petersburg Philharmonic
Palm Beach Daily News

BY KEN KEATON

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic, under conductor Nikolai Alexeev, performed at the Kravis Wednesday night in the first of two programs. Pianist Nikolai Lugansky was the soloist in the finest Rachmaninoff 2nd this reviewer has ever heard.

No, not that St. Petersburg, the one next to Tampa; this is the one in Russia, more properly known as Petrograd (or Leningrad during the Soviet era). The orchestra was founded in 1882. For a half-century, it was led by Evgeny Mravinsky, whose white-hot performances of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich are legendary.

Alexeev has been the conductor since 2000, and led the orchestra in this evening’s concert. It presented two works: the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor and Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Scheherazade.

The orchestra is essential in a Rachmaninoff concerto — it must provide a lush bed of sound, waves of rich, intense sonorities and expressive soloists to surround the piano. A more idiomatic performance can hardly be imagined. But the soloist is the one who makes or breaks the performance, and Lugansky delivered.

He is young and charismatic — so young looking that it is surprising to realize that his career has been in high gear for a decade. He has a performance and recording legacy that includes what one would expect of a Russian virtuoso: Tchaikovsky, Chopin and, of course, Rachmaninoff. The story of the second concerto is well-known. After disastrous reviews of his first symphony, the composer fell into a deep depression; he was unable to compose a note. He had lost confidence.

He worked with a psychotherapist and hypnotist, Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who implanted the idea that his next work would be a masterpiece. That next work was this evening’s concerto. It was, and is, a masterpiece.

Lugansky is a virtuoso, to be sure, but what was evident in his opening chords was his magnificent tone and dynamic control. Every sound was perfectly controlled. His piano playing sweeps without the indulgence that mars so many performances. His range is broad, yet for all his power he never bangs. In the huge climax of the first movement he seemed to make his piano stand out over the waves of orchestral sound by being not louder, but more beautiful. The second movement flowed beautifully — his pacing throughout was perfection — leading without pause into the wild finale. This reviewer has heard faster performances, but none with such a perfection of sonority and drive. The performance crackled with electricity and the audience leapt to its feet in one of those rare standing ovations that was fully deserved.

Scheherazade is a wonderful work, with some of the sexiest music ever composed. A great performance is a rarity — Stokowski’s London Symphony recording has just the right sense of sensuality and Dionysian frenzy. Alexeev presented a lovely performance, but one that had perhaps too much Apollo, not enough Dionysus.

The performance had the needed great waves of orchestral sound and magnificent orchestral soloists. In particular, concertmaster Lev Klychkoff, the voice of Scheherazade, was superb — sweet, sensual, seductive, with enough power to soar over any other sounds, and rock-solid intonation. Bassoon, oboe and flute soloists were equally fine (though the horn was annoyingly sharp). Their best work was in the third movement, The Young Prince and the Young Princess, where tenderness was more important than raw passion.

Still, it was wonderful to hear this work in a live performance, even with a few quibbles. The encore, the Trepak from The Nutcracker, could not have been more perfectly chosen, or executed.