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Debussy: Images; Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3

Nikolai Lugansky

By Peter Cudmore

Nikolai Lugansky, Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Denève

Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 5 stars

It is not a word that one reaches for readily—nor should it be—but since Nikolai Lugansky turned in a sensational performance of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto in Edinburgh tonight, let's just come out and say so.

This work is well known to be one of the biggest beasts in the concerto jungle, engendering the thought—thanks in part to the Debussy that preceded it—that witnessing the spectacle of a pianist taking it on is a little like taking a seat at the Roman colosseum.

It is not only the technical difficulty of the solo part that invites the comparison, but the concerto's romantic aesthetic, which thrusts the hero into the arena willing but exposed. While more recent concertos may very well be even more challenging technically, achieving the conquest of this one is undoubtedly a summit of satisfaction that has few parallels. All these martial metaphors, though, do scant justice to the artistry Lugansky brought to his performance. Ably supported by Denève and the orchestra— Denève giving the opening an unusually sprightly lilt which set a more gracious tone than normal—Lugansky's technical command was immaculate, but his musicianship fused passion and discipline to bring about a genuinely memorable reading.

I don't know what proportion of the audience needs to be on its feet before one can declare a standing ovation. In the political theatre, it is expected of everyone present. At classical concerts one occasionally sees a handful of people on their feet; during the Festival, the 'Edinburgh stander' is just people getting up to hurry off to the next show. Tonight, I'd guess that maybe a quarter or a third of the audience rose to salute Lugansky's performance, and the enthusiasm of the response was as audible as it was visible.

Sometimes this happens: the encore is as telling, if not more so, than the main performance. So it was surprising, to say the least, that of all the things he might have come up with—I was anticipating a Rachmaninov prelude, for instance—it was an obscure work of Liszt's, the Valse oubliée, that he chose, performing it with a heavy pedal to create a wonderfully hallucinogenic cloud of sound. It is not so much that the obscurity of the piece tokens an admirable curiosity, but rather that his musical intelligence is well nourished and acute.

Earlier, the second instalment of this season's Debussy series brought us Images, with a well-informed twist: Denève told us beforehand that in his summer reading of Debussy's letters, he’d found justification for amending the customary order of the set, so that Ibéria, normally the centrepiece, would be heard last. It's an approach with considerable merit. There is a certain rationality about progressing geographically from the England of Gigues, via the France of Rondes de printemps, to the Spain of Ibéria. It is often remarked that Debussy's sole experience of Spain was a trip some 20 kilometres across the border to San Sebastian, in the Basque country, one afternoon, but the Englishness of Gigues is just as tangential—and it hardly matters, anyway. Behind the pictures there is a persuasive musical logic that emerges as the work progresses to its vibrant, capricious conclusion. Denève was in especially animated form, and the orchestra responded with a sparkling performance.