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Ionarts-at-Large: Birmingham in Amsterdam

Neither the opportunity to hear Andris Nelsons—that very excellent and even more promising conductor of the 30+ generation, nor the chance to hear Nikolai Lugansky—among the most sensitive and least flashy of current Russian pianists should be missed. Nor would it be wise to pass on the City of Birmingham Orchestra—ever since the days of Simon Rattle one of England’s finest—stopping by the Concertgebouw. It was a welcome opportunity to spend an otherwise unoccupied night in the city I’ll never be friends with: icky, sticky Amsterdam.

On the bill were Mahler’s First Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto; a program that seems to announce: “Subtleties are kindly asked to wait outside the hall for the duration of this concert.” Lugansky, alas, did not quite play along: the unfazed mellifluousness of his opening bars, with casual elegance and introspection, suggested an alternative take to this hollering barnstormer of a concerto.

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Rachmaninoff / Tchaik., PCs 3 & 1,
M.Argerich / Chailly, Kondrashin / Berlin RSO, BRSO
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G.Mahler, Symphony No.1,
S.Rattle / CoBSO
The impression didn’t last long, though, as the orchestral colors became garish and the players ever louder. Not that there weren’t fine moments amid the wild and sloppy performance, just not enough to overcome a numbing sameness and an occasionally drowned out soloist. The immediate and unanimous standing ovations, I was told, are every bit as meaningless with a Concertgebouw crowd as they are in the Kennedy Center. Only that instead of people reaching for their car-keys, it’s audience members eyeing the (limited) free drinks at intermission.

The Mahler, rigorous, rough-hewn, and middle-of-the-road, went along similar lines. Enjoyable under different circumstances (especially the fact that the double bass solo on Frere Jacques was, for once, not pitch-perfect but suitably off-color), I found it baffling why this performance needed to be aired in Amsterdam of all places, a city possibly more saturated with high quality Mahler in this anniversary year than any other. With neither technical brilliance nor any discernable interpretive stance, it was devoid of statement and devoid of wonder. Not that bringing owls to Athens hasn’t some merit. But if so, they must be spectacular eagle owls. This one was a burrowing owl. Not a concert that could possibly dent Nelsons’ or Lugansky’s reputation, but a considerable disappointment given the top-notch ingredients.

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