Lugansky makes thrilling BSO debut on a night for soloists

October 19, 2012 at 2:53 pm

By David Wright

Nikolai Lugansky performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 Thursday night with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

When one has just heard a spectacular performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s awe-inspiring Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, it’s easy to forget what else was played that night.

But let’s not do that with Thursday night’s concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Charles Dutoit.  In addition to presenting the Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky playing that formidable concerto in his BSO debut, Dutoit and the orchestra offered a rarely-performed work by Claude Debussy and a concerto by Frank Martin that showcased the talents of no fewer than seven of the BSO’s principal players.

The four movements of Debussy’s Symphonic Fragments from The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian don’t add up to a symphony or even a suite in the usual sense, but are more like cuts from a movie soundtrack.  Composed to accompany the mystical drama that Gabriele d’Annunzio was writing for the dancer Ida Rubinstein, this music is short on structure but long on atmosphere, and one can understand why Debussy thought enough of it to choose excerpts for the concert hall.

On Thursday night, the organ-like woodwind chorale that opened the Act I prelude was perfectly tuned and flexibly phrased, the first of many signs of Dutoit’s close attention to detail in this performance.  Throughout the movement, soft attacks on each note created a tentative, furtive feeling overall. That feeling, but more agitated, carried over into the saint’s “Dance of Ecstasy” and Act I finale, in which Dutoit skillfully wove colorful swatches of melody together to make a glorious, fortissimo tapestry at the close.

The third movement, “The Passion,” accompanying the saint’s vision of the Garden of Gethsemane, surged and ebbed amid unresolved harmonies.  Dutoit drew an uncannily soft, dense sound from the orchestra in the quieter passages, the brass in particular playing with exquisite control at the low dynamic.  

In fact, control was the watchword for the entire performance, especially in the last movement, representing the saint’s vision of Christ as “The Good Shepherd.”  One could wonder what a more rhapsodically-minded conductor might make of this score, but Dutoit’s firm hand on every moment from all-out tutti to the thinnest tremolo in the violins seemed to hold not just the musicians but the listeners in its grasp.  In the silence between the last sub-pianissimo note and the enthusiastic applause, an audible, involuntary whisper of “Wow!” escaped one member of the audience.

In contrast, Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra was more of a relaxed family affair, as some familiar faces from the BSO’s back rows came down to the footlights.  Neoclassical and jazzy by turns, Martin’s dance-infused score featured eight instruments—flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and timpani—introducing each with material characteristic of it: incisive flute, mischievous oboe, militant trumpet, malleable trombone, and so on.

The dance turned dreamy in the Adagietto, accompanied by a tick-tock motive seemingly inspired by the one in Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony.  Although Dutoit followed the composer’s instruction to maintain an unwavering tempo, the descending chromatic lines and soft, spongy attacks introduced a note of parody, as if Haydn’s clock needed winding.

Rat-a-tat rhythm and chattering staccato enlivened the finale, its dance tunes menaced from time to time by a grotesque, Shostakovich-style march.  Having played a supporting role in the previous movements, timpanist Timothy Genis found the spotlight with a humorous, stuttering cadenza.  In a family this size, you have to wait your turn to speak, but each of the BSO’s admirable principals made the most of his or her moment, and Dutoit kept it all moving brightly along to the exciting tutti finish.

Hearing the simple melody in octaves that opens Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, one sensed that pianist Lugansky had a fine sense of phrasing and inflection, an impression that would be borne out many times in the next three-quarters of an hour.  (Although one would think, having performed this piece several times in other cities, Lugansky and Dutoit would at least agree on the opening tempo.)  If the pianist’s tone was not the plushest ever heard, he voiced chords beautifully, and the little finger of his right hand sang out Rachmaninoff’s melodies to the back row in every dynamic from tender pianissimo to crashing fortissimo.

Calm and all business on the piano bench, Lugansky easily overcame this piece’s notorious technical challenges, even racing ahead of the orchestra now and then in intricate passages.  He also brought a wide variety of touch to the task, from the airiest above-the-keys leggiero to sonorous, digging-deep fortissimo chords.

Although the transitions between the many sections of this episodic piece were beautifully managed, it wasn’t clear that this pianist and conductor were inspired by a long-range vision of where the piece was going.  Especially in the slow movement, with its lovely wind solos and dizzy waltz episode, one had the sense that the performers were making all the right choices for that moment of the piece, but the overall result sounded more studied than spontaneous.

Nevertheless, the manifold beauties of this performance kept the listener engaged throughout its great length, and it ended just the way it should, stretching out the ecstatic last tune to the limit, then dashing to the finish in a blur of double octaves, bringing the audience instantly to its feet in one last collective “Wow!”

Called back to the stage five times, Lugansky obliged the audience with an encore, a rather understated rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday.  617-266-1200.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Lugansky makes thrilling BSO debut on a night for soloists”

  1. Posted Oct 19, 2012 at 3:28 pm by Anna Shlimovich

    Thank you for your article. We were wondering what Maestro Lugansky played as an encore, and now thanks to you we know! That prelude was elusive – it sounded initially like a pure Rachmaninoff, but then I had a slight doubt that it could be Debussy! But you clarified it for me. And overall, what a rendition of the concerto it was! SENSATIONAL!!! We were lucky to have seen and heard this pianist perform…

    Thank you again,
    Anna Shlimovich

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