Russians and Americans may be at odds politically these days, but the musical bonds seem as tight and warm as ever, judging by the reception the St Petersburg Philharmonic received in Akron, Ohio. A full hall stood and applauded enthusiastically for both another dazzling performance by pianist Nikolai Lugansky and a masterful version of Shostakovichʼs Symphony no. 10 with Nikolay Alexeev at the podium.

Nikolai Lugansky © Marco Borggreve
Nikolai Lugansky
© Marco Borggreve

Given the relatively rare appearance of Russian performers in this part of the world, more than a few members of the audience were hoping for an all-Russian program. But there was no arguing with Brahmsʼ Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, which Lugansky is performing in rotation with Rachmaninovʼs Second on this tour. Brahms gave Lugansky an opportunity to show his formidable combination of technical skills and expressive spontaneity, bringing to life both the intelligence and passion of a seminal Romantic work. 

Much of the passion of the first movement comes from the orchestra, which Alexeev rendered in deep, sometimes thunderous tones, giving Lugansky plenty of space to develop a light, lyrical top that eventually darkened and matched the orchestra in power and intensity. The opening movement also established the equal role between the piano and the orchestra that is one of the unique features of the concerto, with roles and melodies seamlessly trading off, and Lugansky sometimes leading the orchestra, particularly in the frenetic third movement. Cascades of sound pouring off the keyboard seemed like the leading crests of sound waves crashing ashore.

Lugansky has talked about the “religious depth” of the second movement, which he played with a meditative quality. Some of his development turned staccato at times, but Alexeevʼs slow, steady tempo and the golden sounds he invoked from the strings kept the music floating in a spiritual realm.

The performers were unfortunately hampered by the hall, a handsome but all-purpose space that accommodates everything from rock concerts to chamber groups. The overall sound lacked the detail that is one of the hallmarks of the St Petersburg Philharmonic, and in the hand-offs from Alexeev to Lugansky, there was an occasional split-second break that was clearly a result of weak acoustics. But there was no mistaking a world-class performance at the keyboard, and the only regret was that Lugansky didnʼt offer an encore. 

Removing the piano from the stage and rearranging the orchestra seating made a noticeable improvement in the sound in the second half. Alexeev is a craftsman with a deep knowledge of Shostakovich, and even without the better balance and sharper definition in the sound, his rendering of the Tenth would have been a breathtaking study in subtlety and nuance.

Taken down a notch in magnitude and volume, the symphony emerges as a colorful array of driving rhythms and evocative solo lines, mostly in the woodwinds. One expects the composerʼs tortured strings in the first movement, but not usually the delicate oboe, bassoon, clarinet, flute and piccolo sounds that Alexeev used to embellish his sonic canvas. Balanced expertly with the rat-a-tat percussion and fierce energy of the opening and closing movements, the woodwinds took on new depth and an ominous power.

The usual tendency with Shostakovich is to open up the sound, but Alexeev kept his compact and understated, even through the maelstroms of the second movement. His style was reflected in his movements on the podium – no jumping around, just arms with no baton, his hands shaping the sound. This is more than a different approach. Itʼs a brilliant exercise in control that offers the audience a fresh, thoughtful listening experience.

And maybe not a bad object lesson for diplomats in the new Cold War era.