Monday, 17 May 2010
On the Rach Pag
Spent a jolly, sunny afternoon on the Southbank dialoguing and monologuing on the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in the company of Rachmaninov fans (from the -off Society and the Philharmonia Friends) and the compelling, if controversial Nikolay Lugansky. Let's face it, his manner divides opinions: many find him cold, and I don't understand that at all. All emotion is kept between the lines, with the subtlest of rubato and the ability to change colour on a single note. His performance of the Rhapsody on Saturday evening was crystal clear, beautifully sprung - it was a joy to watch the fingers bouncing off the keyboard - and hitting just the right notes of tenderness in the famous 18th variation - that near-inversion of the Paganini Caprice, as the above example shows, and as Lugansky demonstrated in the talk once we'd persuaded him over to the keyboard - without any excess sentimentality. The art that conceals art.
As a person (above left, beside the grinning, chin-up goon) he is, as I knew he would be, easy to talk to, responsive, enthusiastic, full of interesting ideas. The whole thing, I add rather nervously, was filmed, so no doubt there'll be a post mortem at some point. We locked horns just a bit over whether the Dies Irae, the Latin chant for the day of wrath, links to Russian orthodox znamenny chant or not, in which case you could say that the work has some Russian links (Nikolay insists it's the only one where there are none). But this led to a passionate defence of the free-flow autobiography in the Fourth Concerto, a work to which Lugansky is passionately devoted; and indeed of Rachmaninov's own style as a pianist.
That led me to bring up, mentioning no names at the time, what I thought was the ill-advised attempt of Stephen Hough to resurrect Rachmaninov's fast speeds in interpretation - and quick as a flash, also without naming names (and I've no idea if he knows Hough's versions), Lugansky said he thought it wouldn't work, because you'd only get the leggiero without any of the composer-pianist's phenomenal pesante force at those tempi. Exactly right. I still think Hough shouldn't be playing Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky at all - at best it's a rush, missing notes blurred by sustaining pedal, at worst a complete dog's dinner (that awful performance of the Rach 2 at the Proms a couple of years ago).
Anyway, we're here to praise Caesars Rachmaninov and Lugansky, not to bury well-meaning Stephen. But I sure would bury Alexander Lazarev on present form. He launched the evening's concert with another interpretation to forget - a Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings crushed by his completely unnecessary brute force, arms flailing left and right as he gave emphatic cues to violins and cellos they didn't need (and at one point, in the cellos' case, fatally failed to follow properly). Monstrous. As for the pause between Elegie and Finale which brought ill-timed applause and unleashed a battery of latecomers, that was his fault: a sensitive conductor would have gone straight into the slow introduction with the first of Tchaikovsky's Russian themes. The Rach Pag was surprisingly together, but still the orchestra was far too loud. I didn't hang around to hear Lazarev stomp all over Shostakovich 6, especially as I'd heard the Philharmonia give a riveting performance of it with Ashkenazy over at the QEH while the Festival Hall was being renovated.
Other than that sour note, it was a fun day. We heard a great deal from Lugansky about the Rachmaninov country estate of Ivanovka in Tambov province and the amazing moral force of the man who's run it for decades and had it rebuilt according to the original plans.
I sounded off about the Dies Irae from its origins to Berlioz, Liszt (the incredible Totentanz) and the sweep of Rachmaninov's output (with excerpts from his own recordings of The Isle of the Dead, the Vocalise and the Third Symphony). Found Oleg Kagan's recording of the Denisov-arranged Paganini 24th Caprice and Manze/Egarr in the Corelli variations on La Follia, basis for Rachmaninov's own set, which Lugansky thinks is his most difficult and ascetic work (though he plays it superbly alongside the Chopin and Paganini variations on a treasurable disc). Gillian Frumkin, loyal student and Philharmonia Friends dynamo, took me and the super-efficient, friendly girls from the Phil for a plate of pasta at La Strada beneath the hall - a perfect afternoon to sit out and watch the thronging crowds. So let's end with a couple of shots of a rare true May afternoon on the Southbank before the torrential rains of Sunday.