in: Reviews

October 20, 2012

Profundity Unsustainable at Symphony Hall


Charles Dutoit leads Nikolai Lugansky (Stu-Rosner photo)

In Claude Debussy’s Symphonic Fragments from his incidental music to Gabriele d’Annunzio’s mystery play The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Charles Dutoit attained profound depths everywhere. On Thursday evening Debussy’s orchestral abbreviation unfolded in spectral machinations, moments of sheer purity and sheen, and wonder-filled waves rolling in and out of the illusory. BSO soloists elevated Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra through a display of elegance over the composer’s oftentimes taut, uneasy surfaces. This pairing played off surprisingly well back-to-back with the psychological exteriors of the Martin contrasting the spiritual interiors of Debussy. Believing something similar would happen with Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto that followed intermission, it was at first puzzling to me why my earlier rapture was mostly unsustainable here, despite a sensational technique from the young Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky.

I cannot imagine a finer, more involving performance than that which the BSO delivered in every detail all through The Martyrdom’s four movements.  Dutoit’s awesome embrace of every breeze, every gust, and every puff of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic fragment grasped hold of my attention, never for one instant letting go. For once, the opening wind ensembles sounded like one divinely tuned organ. Immaculate solos on English horn from Robert Sheena and trumpet from Thomas Rolfs further plunged us into the extraordinarily brushed colors of Debussy’s mystical score. Dutoit and BSO discovered the clearest of ways toward developing the different climaxes of each of the movements and when arriving at them, made them feel inevitable yet entirely fresh.  I hate even mentioning the one French horn bobble that noticeably detracted from the major climax in the final movement, The Good Shepherd.

The principals of the BSO all shared stardom in the Martin piece, where the crescendo became a bit too obvious as the building device to this peak or that, this, despite Dutoit’s best attempts at mediating them. Chromaticism, upon which Martin heavily relies, also became obvious despite the sometimes frisky more oftentimes intense playing from the soloists who worked as beautifully alone as together. Rowe, Ferrillo, Hudkins, Svoboda, Sommerville, Rolfs, Oft, and Genis must be among the best orchestral musicians in the world.

We learned from the concert booklet containing a reproduction of the “Fourth Program of the Forty-third Season, 1920,” that Rachmaninoff performed what he has said to be his favorite concerto, the Third; that performance, by the way, was preceded by a Haydn Symphony and followed by a suite from The Fire-Bird by Stravinsky. That programming seemed somewhat odd. We also learned that “There will be an intermission of ten minutes after the concerto.”

BSO principals: Rowe, Ferrillo, Hudkins, Svoboda, Sommerville, Rolfs, Oft, and Genis (Stu Rosner photo)

Thursday night, I clocked the 2012 intermission at 25 minutes. Why so long? Was it this long intermission following the Debussy and Martin that made it difficult to refocus on the Rachmaninoff? I believe more that it was the programming of the Debussy and Martin and still more that I had succumbed to the Debussy, really leaving me little else with which to reckon.

While it was completely evident from start to finish that Lugansky can play faster than I can think or hear, he could also in turn be deeply touching. I would have preferred more swooning, less objectifying, though.  Many pianists have proven there is art to velocity that translates to expression or communication.

Sitting in orchestra row S seat five, I found the balance between piano orchestra not quite right, too much volume from Dutoit making it appear to me that Lugansky just had to play louder. Unlike the first and second concertos of Rachmaninoff, the third flirts with musical materials rather than settling in, the third and last movement being the exception. This concerto is more complex overall. Yes, there was gorgeous piano sound and there were moments approaching the lyrical and dramatic. Again, thinking of the first half of the concert with its gorgeousness of sound, Rachmaninoff’s orchestration just did not seem to come at the right place at the right time, neither were the superb balances before intermission present after the long break. 

Ultimately this performance surprised me after having prepared for this review by listening to the Russian playing the same concerto with Roberto Abbado and  the RAI National Symphony Orchestra on YouTube. There he showed much sensitivity and musicality— a very different Lugansky.  Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor, Lugansky’s thoughtful choice of an encore last night, found a most appealing beauty and savagery to end the evening.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


  1. I need to admit that I went to Symphony Hall not to listen Debussy, Martin, or Rachmaninoff but to listen Lugansky. Lugansky is one of those semi-under-radar-flying and Russian pianists whose appearance needs to be celebrated, I think. Unfortunately many of his fellow countrymen who practice loud keyboard banging and exhibitionist piano raping made bad name for Russian pianist. Lugansky is very different. He is smart (in contrary to many of his Russian “competitors”), intelligent and well-“loaded” (I don’t mean money of cause). He also a very capable pianist that known to through truly sensational performances with very deep interpretations. So, I am writing it on Saturday’s mid day and wonder… if I need to go to the concert tonight and bring my Kitten with me. I friend of mine took me to the concert on Thursday and in contrary to my expectation it was disappointment.

    So, Thursday, K row, sit 22. The Debussy was intolerable. I generally not big fun of the peace but the celebrated Symphony Hall absolutely killed. The industry people love drooling saliva about wonderful acoustic in Symphony Hall but the reality is that if you sit at the first 20 rows of orchestra then BSO sounds horrendous. So it was: BSO during Debussy sounded flat and insultingly thin, like sound from a laptop’s speaker. I am sure that it was not how it was in reality but it was what I heard for $114 that a friend of mine paid.

    I did not get the Martin piece even thought the soloists were wonderful and it was a true pleasure even to LOOK at them. Then the Rachmaninoff concerto came.

    I was listening the concerto and I was semi-pleased with Lugansky play but I did not get any pleasure from this listening. Lugansky was playing a well-rehearsed, very “prepared”, balanced and defense version of the concerto. The BSO, the strings at least, were very well mixed from my sit, timing was acceptable. Everything was conformisticly-OK and NOT problematic, from keyboard at least. What was missing was a sense of Lugansky’s personality, the unique “something”, the X factor that converts another needless trip to the Symphony Hall into a life memorable experience that feels you for days. There was nothing like this. To me it was no event from musical perspective.

    I have no idea why it was so. The horrible sound from my sit was for sure one of the very major factors the BSO’s Steinway sounded like $30 Casio keyboard from Radio Shake and BSO sounded like… a bad telephone. I have no idea why Lugansky did not go for the “complexity” that he is able to. My presumption that he was disappointed with orchestra. The strings, particularly the first, were very inelegant and were lacking so necessary for the work grace. Some phrases that Tamara Smirnova took were not from musical world but from Boolean Algebra. The winds were passing the wind with absolutely random volumes. At time I sincerely felt that it was sound from outside of the Hall. The opening theme from the second movement was hardly recognizable. There were many other problems. It is very possible that Lugansky heard the level of BSO during that day and decided to play save.

    The only “interesting” thing was very slow orchestra return in the very end of the concerto…

    I probably will not risk another evening in the Symphony Hole and will listen tonight over radio. Let hope that it will be better…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm

  2. The true inspiration behind “Le martyre”?

    Roger Nichols, in “The Life of Debussy” (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998) cites Ida Rubinstein’s biographer Michael de Cossart:

    “D’Annunzio had been fascinated by the love-bites left on his chest by his mistress Olga Ossani. They looked like fresh arrow wounds and, for the first time, the image of Saint Sebastian pierced with arrows rose up before his eyes.”

    As to Debussy’s assignment, Nichols quotes a letter from the composer to his friend Robert Godet: “If I’m allowed enough time,there are some opportunities for good music.”

    “Whether Debussy realized these opportunities,” Nichols continues, “has been a matter of debate ever since. He himself was moved to tears of emotion when he heard his music performed and it has always had to fight a difficult battle against d’Annunzio’s very long and over-perfumed text. And yet shorn of this entirely, as in the four-movement suite made by Caplet, the music does sound incomplete.”

    Long-time Gramophone reviewer Felix Aprahamian, who had witnessed a complete (five hours) Ida Rubinstein performance in 1931, had no doubts whatever: “Even the tiniest snippet is valuable as the reflection of a musical master.”

    Comment by Richard Buell — October 20, 2012 at 5:31 pm

  3. Very interesting to invoke the decadent/symbolist/fleshly sources of the Debussy, especially as Charles Dutoit’s conducting on Thursday night was (to my mind) a bit too serene, both in the Debussy and in the Rachmaninoff. As though he had come to terms with all the inner demons of the score, so could give us the safe, clean version. So that we would have a nice, enjoyable evening. Free of all anxiety.

    I found myself intensely missing Levine.

    Still, Lugansky was so lyrical. And it was very unexpected really to hear Rachmaninoff 3 as effortless, smooth, joyful, celebratory — rather than “profound.”

    Comment by Ashley — October 20, 2012 at 7:17 pm

  4. Just heard the Debussy price, live over the radio. It for sure was not as horrible as I heard in Symphony Hall. However it only reinforced myself in my questioning of all the impressionistic soufflé music. Yes, it was nice at time but it came from nowhere and it went to nowhere. Take the similar piece written by a good German composer and you have very different level of awareness … One more note. BSO did fine, I agree with David but it was nice in the way how BSO played under Seiji Ozawa. I love the orchestras that play “sensationally” Debussy but slip on Beethoven and Bruckner.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 20, 2012 at 9:18 pm

  5. Just heard Saturday broadcast of the Lugansky’s Rachmaninoff. It was VERY different play from him and from BSO from what I heard on Thursday. Much better, even through oboe sometimes played instead of Russian romantic tunes some kind of pop sessions from Berkley School of Music. It looks like Lugansky went for more colors and the whole BSO presentation was more “compiled”. I quite enjoyed it. It kind of sad that WCRB runs very ugly dynamic compression nowadays over signal from BSO and any dynamic fluctuations of the Lugansky’s piano (particularly the soft notes) were not observable. They all run as one some kind of generic average dynamic level – very repulsive but we can’t blame musicians for that.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 20, 2012 at 10:30 pm

  6. Cat man, which stream are you listening to? On Internet ‘live’ stream the compression was not bad. (And the performance to my ear was quite as you and Ashley say, if not more: light, lithe, fleet, soaring, in spots like better Gershwin or something.)

    Comment by David Moran — October 20, 2012 at 10:36 pm

  7. I don’t know the Rachmaninoff piece. (Maybe I’ve heard it one or twice.) All I can say is that on Thursday evening there were passages, mostly in the last movement, where what I heard from the piano reminded me of Chopin’s concertos, and other places where the ensemble seemed in the Tchaikovsky tradition.

    I doubt the Debussy and Martin works will ever become staples of the repertoire or be considered monuments of Western music, but they were both enjoyable. The Debussy was a lot easier to take than a lot of his more popular stuff. During intermission another audience member commented that it was as if Dutoit were trying to conduct fog — an apt description, I thought. And maybe Mr. Patterson’s word “frisky” is the best one-word summary of the Martin concerto: such a contrast to the Debussy. Perhaps we can regard the first half of the concert as an good example of what the anti-warhorse movement can bring us, pieces that are worth hearing once in a while instead of another tedious run-through of “La Mer” or “Till Eulespiegel’s Merry Pranks.” There must be a lot more such out there.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 21, 2012 at 12:42 am

  8. I have to agree with Romy that, while the compression was not as bad as in years past, it was difinately evident on Saturday compared to what one could obtain from FM back in the 70’s, especially fortissimos. Obviously sound engineers of that era could do much more twitching a simple analog volume control keeping the signal from distorting, than the digitally oriented software of present day.

    Comment by DocGaw — October 22, 2012 at 10:00 am

  9. Romy – in addition to the horrible compression, there were also strange “thumping” noises, whose source I couldn’t figure out.

    As for Lugansky’s playing: I have his recording with the Birmingham Orchestra, and it’s quite different. I’ll leave it to you all to decide wherein the difference lies.

    Comment by Leon Golub — October 22, 2012 at 1:04 pm

  10. Leon, the “thumping” noises are there for a few years, I do not even complain about them and has been accepting them as the unfortunate sound of the cash register that possess all those donations…. I disagree with DocGaw as I know that the horrible compression that we had has nothing to do with digital processing vs. analog processing but has to do strictly with the intentions of the humans who operate the technologies.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 22, 2012 at 1:43 pm

  11. This was a wonderful concert on Tuesday night.

    Dutoit is one of the great conductors…his interpretations are always fascinating even if I may (rarely) disagree with them.

    I was dreading the Rachmaninoff.. having heard this “warhorse” countless times thru the last 5 decades…Lugansky and Dutoit made it spellbinding because of their novel approach… getting rid of the usual slushy, syrupy overly romantic playing…instead there was an astringent yet lovely sound and moments of ravishing beauty. Pianist and orchestra were always in sync..a rarity in this work. The volume of sound produced by Lugansky when called for could almost overtake the orchestra!

    Comment by Ed Burke — October 26, 2012 at 1:16 am

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