Review: Lugansky finds lyricism and glory in Rachmaninoff

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

In the Coming Days

Lugansky returns for a not-to-miss recital Tuesday night, Aug. 12, which will include 13 preludes by Rachmaninoff as well as works by Chopin, Franck and Prokofiev. Phillips and bass Eric Owens share a vocal recital the night of Wednesday, Aug. 13. Then, more pianists: Uzbekistan-born Behzod Abduraimov in Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt and Ravel Thursday, Aug. 14, and Vladimir Feltsman playing Beethoven on the Friday, Aug. 15 Chamber Symphony program. Meanwhile, Bizet’s opera Carmen continues at the Wheeler Opera House tonight, Thursday, Aug. 14, and Saturday, Aug. 16.

Nikolai Lugansky demonstrated for an enthralled Aspen Music Festival audience why he is the Russian pianist of the moment in classical music circles. It’s one thing to boast the immense technique to power through the demanding Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, but something else entirely to simply tower above it. There wasn’t a hint of strain, or showiness, just musical intensity.

He practically danced through this fearsomely virtuosic music, leading off Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program in the Benedict Music Tent. He made it seem like the most natural thing in the world to express the legato melodic lines, from the simple octaves at the start to the titanic chords at the close. The musical narrative always took precedence, rather than the sheer athleticism that often happens in this concerto. He made the piano sing, and radiantly.

Conductor James Feddeck set a blistering pace, too, but rather than fazing the soloist, this only seemed to freshen the music. Feddeck also drew some lush and expressive playing from the strings, a plus in Rachmaninoff. But he had difficulty getting the orchestra in sync with Lugansky, who seemed unperturbed; he simply took charge and the orchestra (eventually) followed. The encore, a sensitively played and lace-delicate Étude Tableau in G Minor, Op. 33, No. 8, created 3 1/2 minutes of bliss.

The boisterous second half included a surprisingly loud Carnival Overture by Dvořák, setting the scene for an even noisier and more over-the-top Poem of Ecstasy by Skryabin. Yes, it’s a big, extravagant piece, but it needed more sonority and less blaring to be truly moving emotionally. Instead Feddeck let it become garish.

Lugansky wasn’t the only soloist to excel this weekend. Soprano Susanna Phillips dazzled with five of Richard Strauss’ Brentano Lieder on Friday’s Chamber Orchestra program. From the first soaring filigrees of pure soprano ecstasy in “Amor,” the very first selection from Strauss’ Brentano set, Phillips established that this was going to be something special. The clarity up and down the range, precision and lightness of expression lifted the music onto a level of musical joy, as if the character of Zerbinetta had somehow escaped to Aspen from Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos.

Phillips’ performance of the five songs Strauss orchestrated in 1940 from his 1918 collection was the highlight of a strong program conducted by Jane Glover. It featured a buoyant Haydn Cello Concerto in D major played by Alisa Weilerstein and an energetic Beethoven Symphony No. 8 to finish.

The songs were another thing altogether. From a composer who wrote incomparably for the soprano voice, and a singer capable of articulating everything from coloratura to languid musical lines blooming with personality, this was magic. “Amor” captured the idea of the flighty Cupid perfectly with florid passages that zinged through the air. “Am die Nacht” slowed the pace to linger in the shadows before finishing with ecstatic paean to wedded bliss. Phillips flipped the switch to “charming” for the moment in “Ich wollt’ win Strausslein binder” when the flower pleads for its life, and invested “Sausle liebe Myrthe” with hushed expectation. The final “Als mir fein Lied erklang,” a Strauss song in an exulting mood, put the capper on a great set. Glover goosed all the richness she could from the orchestra to match.

Weilerstein’s work in the Haydn emphasized elegance and grace, without losing any of the blithely skipping rhythms. Extra bursts of virtuosic runs and diversions dressed up Haydn’s lively little tunes. Weilerstein’s tendency to rush through these invested the music with a breathless quality, and she always righted the rhythmic ship for the next phrase. Glover, known as an early music advocate, led an appropriately spare but sprightly orchestral backing.

The Beethoven registered boundless vitality from the beginning. Glover twisted her body and slashed at the air to get real bounce from the orchestra (challenging her always ebullient English colleague Nicholas McGegan for most demonstrative conductor of the season). With every section of the orchestra on its toes, and executing mostly with precision, the results were immensely satisfying.

Saturday evening in Harris Hall pianist Inon Barnatan showed how a modern grand piano can do justice to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 on an all-Baroque program led by conductor Harry Bicket, on a brief vacation from his duties as music director of Santa Fe Opera.

The pianist made fugues a big part of his own recital last week and attained liftoff with the dazzling cadenza Saturday. The extended moment combined deftly articulated rapid-fire runs with beautifully modulated expression. Bach, of course, wrote this for harpsichord, but even in these days of original instrument-informed performance the extra colors and tonal clarity possible on a piano, in the hands of an artist like Barnatan, bring something extra. Faculty violinist Bing Wang and student flutist Amanda Galick joined Barnatan in sonically enhancing to the piece. Through the program Bicket, who also directs the Baroque band English Concert, embraced the expressive possibilities of modern instruments and sensibilities without losing the tautness and lightness of the Baroque.

For openers the all-student orchestra found the sprightliness in a suite of Rameau’s colorfully orchestrated music from Les Boreades. Three voices from the opera center added delicious comedic presence to Bach’s “Coffee Cantata,” a sly, gently sexy look at a young woman’s need for coffee. Soprano Harrah Friedlander portrayed the caffeine- and coloratura- besotted Liesgen with charm and vocal allure, baritone Jonathan McCullough her stern (and outwitted) father with appropriate pomp, and tenor Brad Raymond an oddly decked out narrator who explained it all. Faculty oboist Elaine Douvas and violinist Stefan Jackiw brought the evening to a gentle close in the familiar strains of Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 20 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.

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