Saturday, March 29, 2008

Rachmaninoff Returns to Cincinnati

March 29, 2008
By Mary Ellyn Hutton

Nikolai LuganskyOne might have been forgiven for believing in time travel Thursday evening at Music Hall. Perhaps it was the white tie and tails, but when pianist Nikolai Lugansky strode out onto the Music Hall stage to perform Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra one had to suspend disbelief that it was the composer himself returning to show us how his music should be played. (The members of the CSO and music director Paavo Järvi were dressed casually for the early evening concert.) The illusion persisted the moment Russian born Lugansky began to play, spinning the slightly dreamy melody with which the Concerto opened with an eerie kind of presence. As he moved into more treacherous waters (pianists consider this concerto the most technically difficult in the literature) lines emerged with exceptional clarity and elegance. It was powerful and powerfully informed playing that swept the audience to its feet after the piano’s final staccato signature. What struck one most about the performance was its musical integrity. If you think you’ve never heard all the notes in this well endowed work, don’t miss tonight’s repeat at 8 p.m. at Music Hall. But it wasn’t just galvanic technique. That was spectacularly evident throughout, as in the first movement cadenza, which Lugansky built to thunderous heights, spilling over into soft cascades at one point (a moment of respite?) against flutist Jasmine Choi’s lovely solo. The Intermezzo (whose first theme summons “I’ve Got You under My Skin”) was touching in the extreme, coursing under his fingers into a very exciting, Russian-flavored finale. The endurance test there did not faze Lugansky, who was as attentive to beauty of sound (producing some of the pearliest notes you will ever hear high on the piano) as he was to breaching Rachmaninoff’s relentless technical hurdles. Lugansky, 34, was supported and complemented throughout the Concerto by Järvi and the CSO. Soloist and orchestra interacted closely, their textures penetrating and suffusing each other for a musical whole rich in tonal and gestural beauty. (Note: These impressions were confirmed, perhaps even intensified, at Friday morning’s repeat at Music Hall, where copies of Lugansky’s CD of the Rachmaninoff Concertos 1 and 3 sold like hot cakes and a long line formed to get his signature.) The second half of the concert was as exciting as the first. Järvi was his powerful insightful self on the podium and that was more than enough for a thrilling performance of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. Järvi alluded to the “detective work” involved in analyzing the 10th Symphony in his taped “First Notes” screened just prior to the concert, including a “translation” of the composer’s initials utilized throughout (D, E-flat, C, B “spell” D, S, C, H in German musical notation). From the forlorn opening, where the lower strings cast a spell reminiscent of the opening of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” through the raucous finale it was a richly drawn tapestry. So compelling was it that there was often total silence in the hall as the audience drank in the music. The coughing and stirring that took place between movements suggested that listeners had been collectively holding their breath in order not to miss anything. Järvi and his players were a team fully united in bringing this vital music to life. As a whole, the performance demonstrated that the CSO woodwinds are as full of character as any wind section in the world, the strings are capable of playing like one instrument over the broadest possible dynamic range and the CSO has some truly star quality brasses. Not to mention the percussionists, whose ability to define color and emotion is prodigious. How many different ways can you strike a tam-tam (large gong)? Richard Jensen showed us: hard in the first movement, like a cloud of ink spreading in water in the third, sharp and painful in the finale. Unforgettable moments were so many as to defy enumeration but here’s a try. In the first movement (Moderato): Principal flutist Randolph Bowman, especially in his lower register where he made the tone opaque and fluttery in contrast to its characteristic sweetness. The entire bassoon section (William Winstead, Hugh Michie and contra-bassoonist Jennifer Monroe) in an early, growly episode. Clarinetists Richard Hawley and Ixi Chen’s mellifluous duet. Piccoloists Joan Voorhees and Kyril Magg at the end, where Shostakovich calls upon their high, aloof coloration for a painfully forlorn effect. In the brutal Allegro (a portrait of Josef Stalin): The strings who landed on their feet – and softly -- in the skittering rebound from one of its many climactic moments. In the third movement (Allegretto): Principal hornist Elizabeth Freimuth’s enigmatic, five-note theme which was sounded so softly on its final (12th) repeat as to have been offstage. In the finale (Andante/Allegro): Principal oboist Dwight Parry’s aching solo at the beginning. Hawley who drew a smile from Järvi when he sounded the cock’s crow-like motif signaling the Allegro and Jonathan Gunn’s nimble E-flat clarinet. Järvi opened the concert with a spirited reading of Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” a wonderful choice since, as he has pointed out in previous “First Notes,” Mozart can go with anything. This program, to be repeated at 8 p.m. tonight at Music Hall, will be performed on the CSO’s upcoming two-week tour of Europe which can be expected to shed significant luster on the Queen City. Järvi and the CSO return to Music Hall April 24 for their last two concerts of the season: with violinist Pinchas Zukerman (April 24-26) and pianist Lars Vogt (May 2 and 3).
For information and tickets, call (513) 381-3300 or visit the CSO web site

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