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S & H Concert Review

Dvorak, Tchaikovsky & Brahms; Nikolai Lugansky (pf) Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, RFH, 17th May 2003, (AR)


Sir Charles Mackerras is one the world’s leading exponents of Czech music, particularly Janacek and Dvorak. He opened his programme with Dvorak’s underrated Otello Overture – which forms a triptych with In Nature’s Realm and Carnival Overture. His reading was beautifully measured, marrying the lyrical with the dramatic. The opening passages had subdued string playing which created a tense nervous atmosphere prefiguring the tragedy to come.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number 1 is one of the most frequently performed works in the Philharmonia’s somewhat conservative repertoire: I reviewed it last November with Boris Berezovsky under Pletnev and it will turn up again on the opening night of their 2003/04 season with Yefim Bronfman under Ashkenazy on 30th September.

Nikolai Lugansky’s refined, reserved and elegant playing emphasised the hidden musicality of this excessively rhetorical concerto. In the first movement the most daunting virtuoso passages were played with precision, clarity and elan allowing us to hear the minutest details and nuances even when playing at full-thrust. His playing of the Andantino semplice was subtle, melodic and lyrical, beautifully embellished by clarion calls from the woodwind.

Mackerras’ sympathetic accompaniment, particularly in the passionate climactic tutti passages, was as usual exemplary, and the overall impression was of hearing this familiar work anew, so fresh was his approach.

unbelievable precision and clarity."

Brahms’ Third Symphony is not only the most seldom performed of his four symphonies but also the most difficult to conduct. However, in Mackerras’ hands the symphony was given a ‘classical’ performance, and the arbitrary tempo changes to which this score lends itself were not evident. What gave this performance weight and depth were the (for once) audible double basses, which were strategically placed along the platform.

The first movement had great verve and attack with the conductor getting the crosscutting rhythms between ‘cellos and violins perfectly in sync, in part because he divided his violins antiphonally. Mackerras changed the palette for both the Andante and Pocco allegreto, eliciting an even deeper string tone and making both movements flow with buoyant urgency while still floating in a haze of melancholia; again the music never dragged or fell apart.

The closing Allegro took on the frenzy of the first movement, with the brass having a strong cutting edge, and the closing serene passages were perfectly paced dissolving the music into reflective oblivion. Mackerras blended all four movements into an organic whole, making the music flow naturally from beginning to end as if composed in one movement.

This paradigm performance was on a par with Otto Klemperer’s legendary Philadelphia Orchestra account (Academy of Music, 27th October 1962) with its emphasis on structure, tone and dynamic range. Maybe Mackerras can follow Klemperer’s example and give us a Brahms’ Symphony cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra?

Alex Russell

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