Reaction: Lugansky Plays Rach 3 with Philadelphia Orchestra

Friday, April 29 2017
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Orchestra
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934)
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909)

When all of your favorite things converge in an occasion that you’ve fantasized about for years and counted down for month, realizing that you missed the last NJ Transit train is pretty darn close to seeing your life flash before your eyes.  But since I would only miss my favorite soloist playing my favorite piano concerto with my favorite orchestra in my favorite music city over my own dead body, I shelled out an arm and a leg for an Amtrak ticket.  It was absolutely worth it, because Nikolai Lugansky playing Rachmaninoff with the Philadelphia Orchestra is everything that’s great about being alive.

Part of Philly’s Rachmaninoff Festival, with any other soloist, this ultra decadent program would probably have been too much of a good thing.  Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a tad saccharine to start with, but fortunately Mr. Lugansky is the ideal pianist to bring out its exquisite and soaring beauty while giving an overall grounded performance.  Sitting directly above and behind the orchestra, the proximity of the drums and brass took some getting used to, though I did have the best view in the house of the pianist.  Pure joy emanates from his playing, yet never indulgently so.  One of Mr. Lugansky’s artistic choices was taking ever-so-slightly longer pauses at junctures where the music was in danger of floating away.  On paper this seems counter to the spirit of the piece, but executed with urbane precision it worked splendidly.  Several years ago a critic had remarked that “[Mr.] Lugansky resurrected this work from the depths of familiarity”, which I think is the best way to describe this performance as well.  It helps that guest conductor Mr. Denève is rather understated himself, deferring to the soloist for the most part but not afraid to highlight the orchestra when the score calls for it–Philadelphia was Rachmaninoff’s favorite orchestra, after all.

I have been waiting for a Rach 3 concert in Philly for a long, long time now, because the last time that I went to one was the most bizarre concert-going experience of my life, and because no other piece of music invokes as many memories of my final year in the city.  In December 2012, the last time Rach 3 was on the Philadelphia Orchestra programming,  a broken water pipe had caused a traffic jam near Kimmel Center, delaying the arrival of many concert attendees and leading the ushers to over-seat the student ticket holders.  Then after a sensational first movement with Denis Matsuev as the soloist, dozens of student ticket holders were asked to leave to accommodate the late arrivals who paid full price for their seats.  This was actually my first time hearing Rach 3, and being so riveted by that first movement, instead of leaving altogether, we stood outside Verizon Hall and watched the rest of the concerto on a live video feed.  I sent a strongly worded email to the orchestra afterwards and was promised that my tribulations weren’t going to be in vain, and the following fall I did observe improvements to the program and like to think that I had something to do with it.  Perhaps to compensate for the experience, in the ensuing months I would listen to Rach 3 over and over again.  That summer I was commuting to New York for a gig at Columbia, and I vividly remember the music accompanying me at absurdly early hours on Monday mornings as the Philadelphia skyline disappeared from view as well as on Friday evenings when I was stuck in traffic in godforsaken parts of New Jersey but nevertheless felt relieved to be going home.  I remember how the second movement sounded different every time I listened to it (still does), how the dazzling ossia cadenza and the explosive finale never failed to make my heart burst (still never fails to), and how much I was already missing the city that had introduced me to such transformative music.  I still miss you, Philly.

On this evening I can’t say that I was able to consistently stay in the moment during the performance of Rach 3; there was the weight of the anticipation, the discomfort of spring allergies, and the stress of work gnawing at me despite my best efforts to block it out.  But still it was a near perfect experience of a near perfect performance, marred only by an inexcusable cell phone going off during the ossia cadenza.  After all, I’ve long believed that Rach 3 is best performed–and experienced–by holding just a little bit back, for otherwise one may be swept away by its dizzying percussiveness.  Impatient as I was for the culmination of the music to provide a long sought-after closure, I was nevertheless desperately wishing for time to slow down so that I can properly enjoy and process this long-awaited occasion.  And when it was all over and I was on my way back to New York, I was already pining for the next time the stars would align, as I used to fantasize about on many other trips out of Philadelphia.  There is an exquisite pain that accompanies this kind of longing, but at the same time, life without it would be inconceivably more bleak.

Review: Nikolai Lugansky Plays Brahms’s First, Take Two

Saturday, March 4 2017
Carnegie Hall, New York NY

St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov, conductor
Nikolai Lugansky, piano 

Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1858)
Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 (1937)

Here comes another March, which means I’m another year older.  It must have been a deal that I made with the Devil in a previous life: a ruthless iteration of age, in exchange for a. baseball’s return every March and b. Nikolai Lugansky’s North American tour each spring.  Last year, if you remember–though why would you–I rode the bus all the way to DC to hear him play Brahms with the NSO.  Had I known that he would be performing the same concerto a mere 12 months later in my own backyard, I would have…still gone to DC, of course.  I would travel to the end of the earth, or at least the continental United States, uh make that the East Coast, to hear him play anything.

I have listened to Brahms’s First many, many times, and every time I’m mesmerized by the way it can be meditative one moment and rhapsodic the next.  Unlike, say, Mozart’s piano concertos, which all sound the same to me (except for the Adagio of the 23rd), there is so much variety within just the first movement, it’s as if the composer were trying to summarize the entire German music history in the span of a concerto.  Listening to Brahms live is a somewhat paradoxical experience.  On the one hand, not only have I never seen an orchestra play completely in sync with the pianist and with each other, I can’t even imagine it happening, as there are just too many moving parts.  On the other hand, despite the inevitable messiness, listening to the piece live stimulates the senses in a way that a perfect recording simply can’t.  In particular, it really emphasizes the composition as a dialogue between the piano and the orchestra, and as often is the case in real life, the most productive dialogues tend to feature elements of tension and conflict, which is reflected in both the score itself and the musicians’ performance.

As for Mr. Lugansky, each time that I’ve seen him live, he’s moved a little bit to the left on the Maurizio Pollini to Lang Lang scale of musicianship.  I can discern cracks now in his urbane aloofness that reveal a more intimate and passionate style.  Of course, one cannot play Brahms the same way one plays Rachmaninoff (if one can play either at all), and I’m curious to see how his Rachmaninoff is these days, but just last year I had remarked that Brahms “requires perhaps more explicit emoting on the pianist’s part”, and indeed tonight he was outwardly emotional beyond the immense energy that already emanates from his breathtaking virtuosity.  Compared to last year’s concert with the NSO, Mr. Lugansky definitely seemed more at ease with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, though their collective interpretation of the music was a little different from what I’m used to.  Motifs rolled legato style into one another instead of breaking assertively in between; to what purpose, I’m not sure.  As dependably crisp as the pianist was, overall there was a lethargic hull over the performance, as if the entire orchestra came with a soft pedal.  To be fair, perhaps it was actually I who was lethargic–20 degree weather and too much SQL at the end of a long and angsty week can be disorientating.

On any other night, Shostakovich’s Fifth would be the headliner of the concert, and even on this night, it technically was.  But just as I was in no mood to review Beethoven’s Pastoral after Mr. Lugansky’s Brahms last year, I am too worn out to give the symphony its proper due.  Someday though, there will be a long essay exploring the enigmatic score and its political and personal context, and any performance thereof will be scrutinized accordingly.  For now I will just note that of all the composers that I regularly listen to, Shostakovich is possibly the one whose music I re-interpret most frequently.  Tonight I heard the Fifth as a dark parody of the traditional Romantic symphony, but Mr. Temirkanov presented this view while conducting, I think, apolitically.  The conflict between the upper and lower strings in the opening movement sets the tone, and the second movement, formally a waltz-like scherzo, is covering up for something sinister.  The shattering finale, however, played out as more triumphant than chilling, and some may see that as a political statement in and of itself.  Ultimately, it was a fine, layered performance with (seemingly?) contradictory messages, which at least on a meta level is worthy of the composer.

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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