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.

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Review: Shostakovich’s Leningrad, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Wednesday, April 20 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Mariss Jansons, conductor

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” (1941)

Well, Shostakovich’s Leningrad as performed by one of the world’s great orchestras deserves a more thoughtful post and comprehensive review than I have time for tonight.  Ostensibly the symbol of St. Petersburg’s defiance against Nazi occupation, musicologists would later reinterpret the piece as protest against Stalinism, not least because the composer himself expressed that his Seventh is “not about Leningrad under siege. It’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off”.  Can’t a cigar just be a cigar sometimes?  Does Shostakovich’s music ever function without subtext?

Interestingly, I think Mr. Jansons conducted Leningrad not politically but instead as a generalized depiction of humanity vs its vices.  Listening to the piece in person tonight, I realized for the first time that the latter half of the first movement is basically Bolero on steroids, repeating the same theme (the so-called invasion theme) in increasing loudness and entropy until every instrument is blasting at full capacity.  Yet unlike the satisfying sudden death ending of Bolero, the movement does not end on the climax but rather on a restless denouement.  Similarly, though the symphony concludes with the full orchestra blazing a triumphant C major, underneath there is a gnawing, repetitive pattern of interjections that is perhaps retreated instead of resolved as of the final, nominally victorious note.  Closure is denied over and over: while the human spirit finds a way to triumph over any instantiation of evil, be it Hitler or Stalin, evil itself can never be fully vanquished, and underneath every victory lurks elements of the next conflict.

As for the orchestra itself, I will just say that for such a large ensemble playing this ambitious score, there were no discernible weaknesses to my ear.  The woodwind principals were all first-rate, and like the other European orchestras that I’ve sampled this season, the brasswinds are far superior to most of their American counterparts.  Good thing, too, as you need good brass for Shostakovich, if only ironically.
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