A concert with Russian music is easily programmed. Take a little bit of Tchaikovsky, add some Rachmaninov or Prokofiev and garnish it with Shostakovich. Shaken, not stirred and na zdorovie! – the success is guaranteed. Though the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s programme used all the traditional ingredients, it improved the recipe considerably with very special flavours: a seldom played suite, a dazzling virtuoso piano concerto and a relaxed symphony. A delicious daring cocktail, served by the pianist Nikolai Lugansky and the Budapest Festival Orchestra under the baton of Gábor Takács-Nagy.

Nikolai Lugansky © Marco Borggreve, Naāva Ambroisie
Nikolai Lugansky
© Marco Borggreve, Naāva Ambroisie
The musical firework started with the Shostakovich’s Hamlet suite, originally composed as scenic music for Nikolay Akimov’s notorious production at the Vachtangov Theatre in Moscow. With his reinterpretation of Hamlet (1932) Akimov suggested a new reading of Shakesperian characters, in particularly of Ophelia, whose drink addiction became the real reason of her drowning. Shostakovich went the extra mile presenting a grotesque musical portrait of ‘the rotten state of Denmark’ in thirteen short sketches. Sarcastic, exuberantly provoking and regrettably short, they formed a striking contrast with a tragic beauty of Shostakovich’s music for the film Hamlet by Grigory Kozintsev, 32 years later. But tonight the BFO showed the young composer, before all the obstractions and dramatical torments, writing joyful, free and unimpeded, but nevertheless already a master in mixing laughter with tears. Gábor Takács-Nagy conducted with a great precision and let his orchestra sparkle in Shostakovitch’s melodical acrobatics, unfolding still new layers and intonations in a kaleidoscope of energetic rhythms and neck breaking tempi.

The musical whirlwind of young Shostakovich subsided for just for a moment to turn into a tornado of the Second Piano Concerto by Sergei Prokofiev, another sarcastic breaker of conventions with an unexhaustible stock of musical peppery. Premiered in 1913, the Concerto caused a scandal, as the composer actually hoped for. Ten years later he reconstructed the score after the original version was lost in fire. Prokofiev would not be Prokofiev if he didn’t seize the opportunity to make the new Concerto even more sarcastic, provocative and percussive. An excellent pianist himself, he provided it with a sequence of quirky solo’s. These eccentric solos gave Nikolai Lugansky on his turn the chance to 'dissect' the piano and respectively the piano sound in all its range and dynamics. The interaction with the orchestra was palpably vibrant while the constant dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra ensured the constant spiral of sound variations. Lugansky played brilliantly, striking off efortlessly the countless virtuoso passages and scales, and was evidently pleased with Prokofiev’s whimsical inventions. His piano sounded as a separate orchestra, step for step preparing the duzzling storm of the finale. And all these wild jumps through the octaves, grabbing chords and finger gymnastics were followed by the breathless listening public in an almost sold out Béla Bartók National Concert hall. As an encore, Lugansky choose a far more peaceful but no less technical demanding Étude-Tableau, Op.33 (Moderato in G minor), by Sergei Rachmaninov.

It seemed that it was up to Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony to soften the sharp atonal edges and to extinguish the firework of his later colleagues. But all of a sudden this famous musical fair of folkloristic themes sounded in perfect harmony with Shostakovich’s and Prokofiev’s escapades. In particular the second movement was suprisingly Shostakovich-like. Compliments to the programme director of the Orchestra who was able to connect these three composers in a homogeneous programme full of musical discoveries. Once more, the orchestra was impressively sonorous. Takács-Nagy shaped the musical phrases and played the orchestra as he would play a violin – with beautiful smooth lines and flowing gestures.

The concert received an extension with a sublime Preghiera from Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite no. 4 ‘Mozartiana’, Op.61. Based on Mozart’s Ave Verum in piano transcription by Liszt, it made another link between the composers, the past and the present. The conductor and the orchestra dedicated it to the memory of the violinist Sándor Devich, one of the founders of the Bartók String Quartet, who passed away on the 20th of January.