Concert Review | Lugansky, Dutoit bring down Symphony Hall
Published: Thursday, October 25, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 25, 2012 01:10
Considering Nikolai Lugansky’s reputation as one of the finest interpreters of Sergei Rachmaninoff, when listeners arrived at Boston’s Symphony Hall to hear him on Oct. 18, they expected a respectable performance of the popular third piano concerto. Instead, they received a phenomenal interpretation that rendered all previous recordings of this piece inadequate. Under the conservative baton of Charles Dutoit, Lugansky’s performance resisted the tendency to exaggerate Rachmaninoff, while combining technical prowess with an impassioned vigor.
The third piano concerto, or “Rach3” as it is colloquially known, has been romanticized as one of, if not the most, difficult piece in the piano repertoire. This notion has been popularized by Vladimir Horowitz’s touring with the piece and by movies like “Shine” (1996), in which David Helfgott struggles to tame the concerto.
Without a doubt, the most daunting part of the concerto is the sequence of rapid octaves in the cadenza of the first movement. Rachmaninoff wrote two versions of this cadenza: a shorter, more scherzo-esque cadenza, which Lugansky played, and a longer, heavier cadenza, the ossia.
Although most pianists usually avoid the ossia because of challenging technique it demands, some pianists argue that there are stylistic reasons for selecting the shorter cadenza. The renowned Russian pianist Emil Gilels, for example, also opted to play the lighter cadenza. While the ossia seems to be superimposed onto the composition, the lighter cadenza is more coherent and its introduction does not interrupt the verve of the piece. Regardless of his reasons, one thing is certain: Lugansky clearly did not choose to perform the shorter cadenza because he was incapable of executing the ossia.
In general, the “Rach3” is less of a concerto and more of a discourse between pianist and orchestra. This structure allowed Rachmaninoff to write even more difficult passages, as doing so meant that the pianist no longer had to operate under the same framework of the orchestra.
In the first, relatively fast-paced movement, Lugansky introduced the modest main theme. When the orchestra began to play, Lugansky accompanied the ensemble with a flurry of difficult arpeggios. The heaviness of the main theme contrasted with a lyrical and expressive secondary theme. The bassoons imitated this tender melody in counterpoint, followed by horns, strings and, finally, clarinet and oboe in unison. The theme then climaxed with a gripping chordal passage.
Although the second movement stopped the obsessive forward motion of the first movement, it was equally melancholy. Here, the romantic and introspective main theme was compulsively developed, giving Lugansky no time to relax. Unlike the first movement, the form of the second movement was fairly unrestricted. At that point, the pianist had extra leeway and artistic license to be more dynamic. Lugansky ultimately succeeded in this movement by making his interpretation expressive, but not overstated.
Lugansky kept true to the Russian tradition. In Rachmaninoff’s own recording of the piece, the composer took less liberty with rubato and dynamic exaggeration than modern pianists do nowadays. Lugansky’s reserve worked well, complementing the conducting of Dutoit who was keen on keeping a dynamic balance and maintaining strict time.
The third movement offered respite from the despair of the first two movements, bringing back the drive of the first movement, but this time with a sense of triumph. A galloping octave section in the beginning melted into a soaring melody. It escalated to an enormous and unrestrained orchestral tutti before finally concluding. Its end cued an immediate standing ovation from the audience.
Lugansky played with enormous force. In most performances of this piece, the orchestra often plays too loudly for listeners to hear the pianist. However, Lugansky seemed to have the opposite problem. In certain sections, it would have been helpful for him to diminish his volume, allowing the woodwinds to be more easily heard, especially the flute. Aside from this, the rendition of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto was impeccable. Dutoit’s conducting was a perfect balance for a like-minded Lugansky, whose reserve throughout the piece made the climaxes, and the entire performance, even more powerful.