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PSO Reveiw: Pianist impresses on, off stage

Nikolai Lugansky
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

What pianist Nikolai Lugansky did on stage last night at Heinz Hall in his Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra debut was special, but what he did off of it was just as impressive.

After transporting the audience with a graceful performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in Heinz Hall under the baton of Marek Janowski, Lugansky went into the ranks of the audience to hear the rest of the program, Brahms' Symphony No. 4. It may not seem like much, but the preponderance of guest soloists skip back into their hotel rooms after a performance, with little interest in the rest of the concert, and if they did stay, they would likely sit in a box.

It was refreshing to see the Russian soloist's humble attitude before the music. Not that we couldn't tell it from his performance. His elegance personified in a concerto that demands it. Beethoven's Fourth is much more introspective than the grand Fifth Concerto, "Emperor," and Lugansky set his considerable technique to the task of expression, not fireworks. Phrases connected with an inner logic, scales flowed like liquid, and there were occasions of jaw-dropping quiet. The most exquisite moments came in the piano's calm response to the strings' aggressive outbursts in the second movement. To risk an interpretation, the music sounds like a brutal force is accosting a gentle, sensitive person. It was touching to hear Lugansky emphasize the contrast without exaggerating. Clearly, he is a pianist of depth and character as well as a virtuoso.

The performances of Brahms' Fourth are the last puzzle piece in the current PSO recording project of his symphonic cycle. I have been focusing on Janowski's interpretations in reviews so far, readings which are solid, but not special, and that makes me wonder how they will fare in a market already flooded by Brahms. This concert was similar -- sumptuous string timbre, rich textures and tight ensemble, with glorious momentum surging through the music. But his crafting on the large scale, in areas such as the mighty cadence in the second movement and the trombone variation of the finale, again was too matter-of-fact (though the trombones played well).

But just as important is that these recordings will capture an aural snapshot of what the PSO sounds like now. It will be invaluable to have this document for the future, for the ability of this entire amazing orchestra and for likes of its excellent principals, highlighted last night by Michael Rusinek (clarinet), Nancy Goeres (bassoon), William Caballero, Robert Lauver and Zachary Smith (horn) and Timothy Adams (timpani).

The concert, as it did last week, contained a selection of Brahms' Hungarian Dances (nos. 17-19 and 21). And again Janowski was too controlling of these free-spirited works. Also, it was frustrating not to hear the most famous dance of them all, Hungarian Dance No. 5, on either weekend. It would have made for a perfect encore.