It can be a strange experience to listen to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 without the visuals of Celia Johnson’s doe-eyed sadness and Trevor Howard’s tortured half-smile to go with it, so synonymous is the work with Brief Encounter, Noël Coward’s celebrated paean to 1940s English morality and thwarted love. The challenge, then, is for orchestras to conquer this insoluble link with the silver screen and deliver a performance that feels fresh and unencumbered by external associations.

Nikolai Lugansky © Marco Borggreve / Naïve-Ambroisie
Nikolai Lugansky
© Marco Borggreve / Naïve-Ambroisie

As a committed Rachmaninov aficionado, I have seen this – his most popular work – performed on several occasions, and have often been left disappointed. Even without the Brief Encounter connection this is still a work whose themes have been regurgitated and rehashed time and time again in popular music and cinema, and for this reason overly sentimental, clichéd and derivative performances are, sadly, par for the course. This time, however, I left the concert hall exhilarated and with a genuine renewed excitement for a work I know so well and have heard so many times. This was the most thrilling, unabashedly dramatic and breathlessly passionate Rach 2 I have ever heard live and – as the best readings of well-known works tend to do – made me notice things in the piece I had never focused on before.

The internationally successful Russian pianist Nikolai Luganksy was at the keyboard on Thursday evening. Having recorded his compatriot’s two piano sonatas last year, Lugansky has form when it comes to Rachmaninov, and his familiarity with the composer’s soundworld was obvious. From those first sumptuous opening chords to the final ecstatic triplet figurations of the Allegro scherzando, this was an all-consuming and fiery performance. Most notable of all was Lugansky’s extremely physical style of playing. Of course, with their swift changes in register and alarmingly dense chords, Rachmaninov’s piano concerti are always going to be endurance tests for any pianist, but Lugansky’s Rach 2 was not just a feat of dexterity – it was a whole-body experience. Although usually a sceptic when it comes to on-stage theatrics, which are frequently an unnecessary embellishment to a performer’s virtuosity, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Lugansky very literally jumping from his seat a number of times during the recital, the physical aspect of his performance seeming entirely spontaneous and uncontrived.

Under the directorship of Andrey Boreyko, the National Orchestra of Belgium was more than a match for Lugansky’s musicianship and passion. The solo flute’s countermelody and the bassoons’ eerie colouring in the Adagio sostenuto were especially masterful, and the French horn players were in particularly sonorous form. Coupled with a strings section that brought a treacly yearning to every swelling vibrato, this was a first-class performance.

This was a free concert given as part of the Fête de la Musique celebrations, an international festival aiming to bring music of all genres to a mass audience, which meant a packed hall and a certain buzz in the air. The performance was met by enthusiastic applause in between movements as well as at the end, which probably signifies that there were a large number of first-timers in the audience. Good: it was heartening to see so many new faces in a venue that pulls a faithful yet unchanging crowd, however much the mid-concerto clapping may have angered purists. Lugansky repaid the audience’s rapturous reception with a short encore, Rachmaninov’s shimmering Allegro in G sharp minor from the Preludes, Op. 32.

The orchestra having seemingly given everything in their emotional armoury to the Rachmaninov, their Eroica in the second half seemed comparatively lacklustre. Although without doubt a competent and enjoyable performance, the musicians were visibly tired and the electric current that had run through the spectacular first half was unfortunately not sustained through the Beethoven, an impression not helped by a finale that ran at an infuriatingly sluggish pace. That said, although the symphony lacked the depth of the preceding music, the playing was light and crisp throughout and would, had it not been preceded by the spectacular Rachmaninov, been more than palatable. The evening had already been stolen, however, by Lugansky’s intense pianism. All in all, a triumph.