Rachmaninoff, Lugansky and the Philadelphians - a winning combination

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Rachmaninoff, Lugansky and the Philadelphians - a winning combination

Post by Ricordanza » Wed May 03, 2017 7:25 pm

In February of this year, when pianist Lise de la Salle sat down at the piano for an encore after performing a Beethoven concerto with the orchestra, she turned to the audience and asked, “I don’t know which encore to play, Debussy or Rachmaninoff?” Rachmaninoff won by a decisive voice vote.

Turning back the clock about 80 years, Sergei Rachmaninoff had this to say about the Philadelphia Orchestra: “Philadelphia has the finest orchestra I have ever heard at any time or any place in my whole life. I don’t know that I would be exaggerating if I said it is the finest orchestra the world has ever heard.”

Yes, many years have gone by and the personnel and leadership of the orchestra are entirely different, but there’s no denying a special bond between Philadelphia and Rachmaninoff.

In keeping with this bond, the orchestra held a three-concert Rachmaninoff festival, featuring the five works for piano and orchestra. I attended the middle concert on Friday evening, April 28, where Russian virtuoso Nikolai Lugansky had the formidable task of playing two of those works, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Piano Concerto No. 3.

But as we came into Verizon Hall, we saw two piano benches in front of the Steinway. Why? These works only call for one soloist.

The answer was provided soon enough. Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève took the microphone, made some comments about Rachmaninoff and the festival, and then said in a playful tone that he was seeking a volunteer from the audience to perform a four-hand version of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise to begin the evening. “Come on,” he said, holding up the music, “it’s quite slow and only these two pages.” Of course, there was a “plant” for this assignment—the 11-year old prodigy Harmony Zhu stepped onto the stage and joined maestro Denève for an appealing rendition of this beautiful piece.

Then it was time for the listed program. The Rhapsody is, deservedly, one of the most popular works in the piano and orchestra repertoire, and Lugansky and the Philadelphians delivered a stirring performance. The familiar 18th variation was played with warmth and poetry but without descending into a syrupy goo. Other variations had just the right amount of “bite.”

Few pianists would tackle the Rhapsody and the notoriously challenging “Rach 3” on the same evening, but in purely physical terms, Lugansky was more than up to the task. His astonishing technique is much more than the ability to play loud and fast. Rather, what struck me about his playing was that in the absolute torrent of notes that comprise the 3rd Concerto, his remarkable articulation allowed every note to come through.

But let’s not forget that these are wonderful pieces of music, not mere athletic feats. The 3rd Concerto is especially musically rich, and orchestra and soloist produced a memorable performance.

I could only wish that old Sergei could come back to hear it. I think he would have joined the audience in its roar of approval.

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