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19.4.14

Lugansky in Blistering Prokofiev 3

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Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 3 (and Grieg Concerto), N. Lugansky, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, K. Nagano
(Naïve, 2013)
Nikolai Lugansky is an exceptionally accomplished pianist, someone with technique to burn but who plays with consummate restraint. The combination leads some, who judge principally with their eyes, to find him cool or distant, but to those who listen, he consistently dazzles the ears. This makes him ideally suited to the major piano concertos, and he has blown me away in the Rachmaninov third concerto, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra two years ago and the Philadelphia Orchestra before that, if less so in Beethoven's fourth concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2011. The Russian pianist has just made a recording of Prokofiev's daunting third piano concerto and has been making the rounds with it, including in this week's concerts with the NSO, where I heard him play it on Friday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The program, led by the slightly unpredictable young conductor Cornelius Meister, currently chief conductor of the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien (the resident orchestra of Österreichischer Rundfunk), also featured a lesser-known Mendelssohn overture and Mozart's Symphony No. 40 (not reviewed).

Lugansky hit all the right marks in this complicated concerto: helter-skelter runs at super-fast tempos, a tongue-in-cheek take on the first movement's goofy second theme (accompanied by castanets), impeccable hand crossings, a steely accuracy in the large-handed berserk chordal sections, but also a dreamy take on the piano's musings at the recapitulation, where the tender opening clarinet solo returns. In general there were fine contributions from the NSO musicians, a great piccolo duet with the soloist in one of the odder passages of the first movement, for example, although with a couple clams in the horn calls of the second movement. Most of the coordination problems must be laid at the feet of Meister, who showed a slightly inexperienced hand leading this kind of piece. At fast tempos the urgency he wanted to show obscured the clarity of his beat at times, and that uncertainty was heard in the lack of ensemble unity of the orchestra, not always aligned with itself or with the soloist. This was especially a shame in the fleeter passages of the second movement, where Lugansky was light as a feather but not always matched by the orchestra, and in the tense slow section toward the end, where Lugansky's playing was, a notable exception, on the prosaic side, missing some of the mystery of the passage. In the third movement, though, everything came together, with pleasingly acerbic edges, raucous woodwinds, and some truly astounding finger-work from Lugansky. The ovation was loud enough for an encore, but Lugansky declined to offer one.


Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, A winning program in Cornelius Meister’s debut with National Symphony Orchestra

Terry Ponick, NSO: Meister, Lugansky = one hot symphony evening at the KenCen (Communities Digital News, April 18)

Joseph Thirouin, Un Lugansky flamboyant dans le troisieme de Prokofiev (ResMusica.com, April 16)
Many of the same problems at the podium (also heard in Meister's last local appearance, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2012) were evident in the opening work, Mendelssohn's overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, op. 27, an evocation of a becalmed sea, dangerous for ships relying on sails, and a successful arrival into port. The composer was inspired by an obscure late cantata of Beethoven's on the same title, bringing together two poetic fragments by Goethe. The Meeresstille section had a lovely rubato push and pull to it, with Meister giving a careful dynamic control to the score, the brass quietly underpinning the texture. When the winds were finally released in the second section, Meister pushed the tempo extremely fast, and the results were as erratic as his beat often looked. This did not preclude some fine playing, especially on the prominent contrabassoon part and in the grand brass fanfare that sounds as land is sighted.

This concert will be repeated this evening (April 19, 8 pm) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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