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Shostakovich & Rachmaninov


Festive Overture, op.96 (1947)

Piano Concerto No.1 in F# minor, op.1 (1890/1891 rev 1917)

Symphony No.2 in E minor, op.27 (1906/1907)


Philharmonia Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
Nikolai Lugansky


Royal Festival Hall, London, 5 November 2009


For a long time we’ve been given the story that Shostakovich dashed off his Festive Overture in a single night – physically this would be impossible, I’ve always assumed that what was meant was that he sketched the piece overnight – but in tonight’s programme book we were given the more likelystory, that he actually wrote the piece soon after the end of the Great Patriotic War but withheld it for eight years, fearing a new purge against artists, which came the following February. Whateve, it’s a riotous orchestral showpiece, with virtuoso writing for the players and a couple of good tunes – one racey and the other broad and lyrical. It’s a kind of modern Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture, in feel, and it mades a fabulous start. Pletnev allowed the music to go as it wished and he brought the house down!


This concert inaugurated a Rachmaninov cycle with Nikolai Lugansky. Written whilst still a student, the 1st Concerto reached England in 1900, when it was conducted by Henry Wood, but the score never pleased the composer so, just two months before the Revolution, he made changes to the score and that is the version we usually hear today. Perhaps surprisingly, the 43 year old Rachmaninov manages to keep the 19 year old composer's spirit and the work is full of youthful adventure. Lugansky fully understood this, allowing the youthful high spirits to take flight. The slow movement was a delight in its understatement, and the finale a hotbed of virtuosity.


The 2nd Symphony was a revelation! Pletnev looks as if he does very little – certainly his is a very minimal technique – but he must have given lots of thought to this performance. Taking the slower music slower than is usual, and the fast music faster, this was a performance of quite unique contrast, but one which made perfect sense, even if one’s perceptions of the music were occasionally turned upside down. A very slow, and trenchant, introduction, including some glorious string playing, led into a brisk, dramatic allegro. The second subject was a delight with strings delicately colouring the woodwind tune, and the ensuing development section was all fire and excitement. An excellent performance but it was matched by a vivacious, and unrelenting, scherzo, the fugal trio section being particularly hair raising. Pletnev shaped the slow movement very well indeed, making the most of the big climax, which occurs early in the movement, and allowing the discussion of the material which follows to unfold quite naturally, seeming as if it were a collective improvisation and not music which had been carefully prepared. This was stunning. The finale was a riot and Pletnev’s holding back of the big tune, at the end, made for a thrilling and decisive conclusion. All in all, a truly splendid night.


Bob Briggs