The highlight of this Prom was the incandescent playing
of Prokofiev’s youthful First Piano Concerto by of Moscow
born pianist Nikolai Lugansky. Undoubtedly one of the greatest living
exponents of the classical Russian repertoire, despite his youth, Lugansky
brought colour and clarity to the score, playing with both great agility
and vigour: one second, rippling and sparkling; the next metallic, brittle,
bringing hard-edges to the first movement.
In the closing passages he played like a man possessed,
at such great speed his hands were a veritable blur, but despite this
frantic velocity, nothing was fudged, and all the notes were given distinct
value. Though well paced by Alexander Lazarev, the orchestral playing
from the brass was often too loud, sometimes drowned out the soloist.
After this inspired first half what followed was a
travesty: the noisiest and most crudely conducted account of Shostakovich’s
Symphony No.7 in C ‘Leningrad’ (1941) I have ever heard.
Even before the audience had stopped applauding his
reappearance after the interval, Lazarev had leapt onto the podium and
launched into the opening bars, immediately establishing a sense urgency
and high drama; but things were soon to fall apart due to his concern
for extreme dynamics and distortion of tempi. Throughout this wayward
performance, Lazarev never had a firm grip on the architecture of the
symphony, constantly fragmenting the flow of the music.
For instance, at the beginning of the first movement
during the early solo violin passage and the entry of the side drum,
the accompanying pizzicato strings were barely audible, breaking both
the tension and momentum of the music. In stark contrast to this, the
climax was pure noise, with the coarsely tuned brass drowning out the
rest of the orchestra. Whilst this music is meant to conjure up the
brutality of war, with specific reference to the harrowing days of the
siege of Leningrad, it should not be brutally played to the point of
sounding distorted. Curiously, the closing passages for piano and muted
trumpet were ponderous and laboured, and merely broke the flow of the
music yet again.
This was a movement of extremes, where not only the
very quiet passages seemed barely audible, but so, paradoxically, did
the climaxes; the sheer noise of it all congested and negated the wider
sounds of the orchestra.
With ‘Memories’ Lazarev adopted a relatively laid-back
approach, making the music sound radiant, yet conjuring up melancholia
in the reflective moments to contrast with the merry making in the carnivaleque
percussive sections. The most haunting feature of this movement were
the brooding sounds of the solo oboe sensitively accompanied by a sparkling
harp. This was far better realised than the first movement with the
dynamics being better balanced.
‘My Native Field’ opened with a total blast of sound,
followed by very harsh, strident strings. Obviously Lazarev wanted to
milk the emotion but he over-did it, the result sounding hard-edged
and brutish: intensity of expression does not necessarily come from
turning up the volume. Throughout, the music was loud and bombastic,
with no sense of reserve, distillation or reflective mourning. The most
successful movement was Victory where the conductor conjured up a
sense of unnerving desolation.
Lazarev’s grasp of the final crescendo was exacting
with the closing passages having great intensity, with menacing bass-drum,
percussion and brass achieving just the right kind of impact to send
the audience into raptures. Yet, it was an overwhelming ending to a
wayward and often noisy performance.
The deafening volume of the final bars from the percussion
and brass reminded one of the apocryphal gag attributed to Noel Coward
concerning Lionel Bart’s musical Blitz – "…louder and longer
than the original as I remember."