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Lugansky and Vänskä Devastating in Brahms

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Beethoven, Symphonies, Minnesota Orchestra, O. Vänskä
(BIS, 2009)
If we take this week's "trifecta of Russian piano virtuosos" in the classic, hippodromic sense of the word, it would be Denis Matsuev for Place and Daniil Trifonov for Show. The Win would go to the last to reach my ears, Nikolai Lugansky's devastating performance of the Brahms first piano concerto with Osmo Vänskä at the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra, heard on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

The first movement of this concerto can be a little overbearing, and it was so in this performance, with the timpani overwhelming much of the first section of the orchestral exposition. A dark gloom settled over the orchestra in the second theme, winding down into the trumpets and timpani as Lugansky made his first wandering, subdued entrance. He and Vänskä were always in rhythmic unity, aiming together for a slow burn of this rather massive, shambling piece. At the recapitulation, preceded by rumbling octaves in the piano, Lugansky was implacable in tone, after which the piece subsided into murky depths in that long duet of the bass side of the keyboard and horn.

The climax of the piece is the slow movement, perhaps the most beautiful one Brahms ever composed, a portrait of Clara Schumann, smoldering with emotion that is bottled up, not allowed full expression except introspectively. A characteristic moment happens early in the Adagio (see the score below), in measures 12 to 13 of the orchestral introduction, where a powerful V chord looks lined up to resolve strongly to I, only to be turned away as V7 is suspended over a D pedal tone, which then has to pass through IV in second inversion before reaching its destination. This was exactly how Lugansky and the orchestra played it, more a glowing ember than a blazing fire. Lugansky tamed the finale's challenges with steely technical power, fast but not too much so, with only some of the piano's out-of-tune treble strings to cause complaint.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Vanska makes a muted NSO return with Brahms, but shines in Beethoven (Washington Post, March 18)
At the start of Beethoven's sixth symphony, which concluded the evening, Vänskä struck an impatient tone in what should be a genial first movement. His gestures, seeming to grate against the more restrained tempo, unsettled the ensemble unity in the first movement, especially in the sections dominated by sextuplets. The second movement, by contrast, had a serene, lilting quality, in which the careful layering of sounds, some more important than others, created a rushing or burbling effect. The woodwind players were flawless in rendering the magical moment of the three bird calls -- Nachtigall, Wachtel, Kukuk (nightingale, quail, and cuckoo) -- at the movement's end. The third movement felt fast but was delightfully light and soft, except that Vänskä allowed the string sound to engulf the woodwind melody at times in the trio. Celli and timpani rumbled in alternation effectively in the storm scene, followed by a sweet, gently paced finale, where Vänskä's restraint at the start paid off at the climax of the movement.

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