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S & H Prom Review

PROM 66 Prokofiev, Shostakovich; Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Alexander Lazarev (conductor); Royal Albert Hall, 8th September 2003 (AR)



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."

Alex Russell

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