For Leonard Slatkin and the Philharmonia - with Rachmaninov's long and taxing Second Symphony in prospect - it was an opportunity (which they siezed with energy if not absolute precision) to get bow-arms and fingers moving. Nikolai Lugansky's were already primed and ready to fire. The laid-back opening pages of Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto - which find the soloist in attendance to the balmiest of melodies - has to be one of the most deceptive in all 20th-century music. A clue can be drawn from the way in which this fragrant melody is almost immediately subverted by the string harmonies surrounding it, but nothing - nothing - can prepare you (or the pianist, for that matter) for what follows. It's like the ballet is only inches away from the machine shop. And Prokofiev's industrial revolution is in full swing. Most of the first movement is commandeered by the mother of all cadenzas: fistfuls of notes seemingly activated not by fingers, but rather steel pistons and rivets. And so this wicked confection goes on. You have to be a huge keyboard personality not to be subsumed by it. Lugansky (still only 26 years of age) has the notes, the fingers, the colours, the technique (a wonderful rhythmic percussiveness), but he's not yet bigger than the piece, temperamentally speaking, he's not yet able to play with, have fun with, Prokofiev's outrageous and capricious fancies. I'd say the piece won - on points.
Slatkin's view of the Rachmaninov was definitely closer to Uncle Sam than Mother Russia. But then so was Rachmaninov. It's all too easy to get lost in admiration for this piece, to luxuriate in its seemingly eternal melodies (none more so than the clarinet's wistful turn in the slow movement), to sacrifice direction to self-regard. But Slatkin had his finger on the inner-pulse of the symphony from the very outset. It was vital, it was urgent, full of zest and syncopation (a fizzing allegro molto for the scherzo), and plenty of movement in the phrasing. Which really put the heat on the Philharmonia violins. So much so that the Concert Master (Christopher Warren-Green) was, for my taste, rather too much in evidence, his sound too distinct from that of his colleagues. Still, the glamour was inescapable, the reach of those sweeping string melodies, with their characteristically elaborate horn descants, more redolent than ever of Hollywood nights. And none the worse for it.Reuse content