Review: Nikolai Lugansky Plays Brahms’s First

Saturday, March 19 2016
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington DC

National Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä, conductor
Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1858)
Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” (1808)

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It was the best of the times, it was the worst of the times.  On the one hand, this was the day that I had circled on my calendar many moons ago, the long-awaited spring’s eve that would be the reward for the fall and winter of discontent: Nikolai Lugansky making his annual North American swing, with the National Symphony Orchestra being this year’s lucky band.  What’s more, he would play Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, which is not only one of my very favorite pieces of music, but a piece that until now I have never heard him play, not even on YouTube.  On the other hand, I arrived to a cold, rainy DC sleep deprived and highly distraught.  I had just been informed the night before that I have to vacate my New York apartment much sooner than anticipated–if you have ever tried to look for an apartment in New York on a restricted timeline and a non-banker’s salary, you’d sympathize–and instead of relaxing and maybe pregaming, I spent the long bus ride down I-95 navigating the stages of anger and bargaining.  (And the ensuing time in the metro instinctively stepping away from the train tracks–House of Cards fans would understand.)

Having been to some of the world’s most renowned concert halls–Musikverein in Vienna, Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, not to brag or anything–I have to say that the Concert Hall at Kennedy Center is the Pareto optimum between stately and understated.  Unfortunately, it is also the global minimum in acoustics.  Either that, or Mr. Vänskä made some curious conducting choices.  Brahms’s First is many things–passionate, foreboding, a mishmash of the entire German tradition from Bach to Schumann with a hint of folk idioms–but muted should not be one of them.  Yet such was the overall impression given by everyone on stage.  Right off the bat, it is clear that the NSO is nowhere near the level of the other American orchestras that I’ve listened to so far this season.  They play remarkably in sync, but underneath the synchronicity is a smattering of off-pitch instruments and an incoherence in expression.  Still, like how our brains can autocorrect typos to enable us to read heavily misspelled paragraphs, I think my brain superimposed more pleasant recordings of the piece over the orchestra’s playing.  Not over the soloist, though, of course not, even if Brahms is possibly not the most natural composer for Mr. Lugansky’s style.  The piano enters the concerto near the end of the orchestra’s opening exposition, after an exaltation of the first violins that I react very strongly to but, for the life of me, cannot figure out what that reaction is exactly.  Tonight–and this is just me–perhaps due to the stressful reminder of stability’s transience, those notes right before the piano’s entry sparked memories of beautifully fragile quotes from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  I’m used to the piano starting assertively and in somewhat of a contrast with the orchestra, which was not the soloist’s choice.  This is in and of itself fine, but for some reason or another, the soloist and the orchestra never developed any credible rapport throughout the performance.

Prior to tonight I had heard Mr. Lugansky in person three times, twice playing Rachmaninoff and once giving a recital highlighted by an esoteric Schubert sonata, all highly technical pieces with significant built-in emotion.  Brahms, on the other hand, requires perhaps more explicit emoting on the pianist’s part.  Not that Mr. Lugansky is lacking in anyway emotionally, but rather what I’ve long admired about him is the way his highly polished and slightly aloof virtuosity paradoxically generates energy and passion.  Yet against the sloppy mess that was the orchestra, the soloist’s crisp dexterity was nearly wasted.  It certainly did not help that the conductor brought the second movement, particularly the piano’s unaccompanied passages, to a painfully slow and quiet whisper, which in my opinion was neither the intent of the composer nor the strength of the performer.  Fortunately, toward the end of the third movement the sheer force of the score overcame the orchestra’s shortcomings, and with Mr. Lugansky as animated as I’ve ever seen him, the pianist and the orchestra found just enough common ground with each other and with the music to bring the piece to its deserved rousing finish, whence the audience started to clap as the final notes were still being played.

The second half of the program was Beethoven’s Sixth, which, who cares.  Kidding, kidding, though anyone looking for a comprehensive review of the symphonic part of the program will have to look elsewhere.  Beethoven’s even-numbered symphonies tend to be more low-key and less fatalistic than his odd-numbered ones, and there is little in the joyful Sixth Symphony that recalls the intensity of the Fifth, which is remarkable considering that Beethoven had composed the two pieces at roughly the same time.  I guess the Fifth reflected the stormy climates of Vienna while the Sixth took after the composer’s sanctuary in the countryside.  What also struck me about the Sixth, besides its overall pleasantness, is how much closer it is to Brahms than it is to Haydn in both form and content; certainly this is the most Romantic of the Beethoven symphonies that I have heard this season.  The NSO and Mr. Vänskä did a much better job here than with the Brahms, though certain parts were still played in an inexplicably lethargic way and even the very polite DC audience seemed a bit impatient toward the end.

After the concert, Mr. Lugansky kindly held a CD signing session.  When it was my turn, I told him that I’m a big fan, and that I had come from New York to see him.  He seemed very pleased by this and told me that he will be playing in New York next year.  It is settled then: however much my next apartment costs, it will almost be worth it.

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