The experience of live Romantic music can be remarkable, presenting audiences with the opportunity to share in the most personal expressions of an artist. On this concert, guest conductor Juanjo Mena (currently chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic) and pianist Nikolai Lugansky teamed up with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal to present works by Chopin and Tchaikovsky, two Romantic composers of kindred spirit. Chopin piano concertos and Tchaikovsky symphonies are among the most widely known pieces of the classical repertoire and carry high expectations. However, Lugansky and Mena shone, conveying the wide range of emotions in the works through great expressiveness along with careful control and attention to detail.

The evening began with the definitive opening statements of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E Minor, the orchestra capturing the stately, majestic character indicated for the first movement. The orchestra shifted from melodies in the strings to abrupt outbursts, all the while maintaining a rather restrained, aristocratic character. Lugansky’s first entry served as a contrast, delicate and gentle. This was Lugansky’s approach throughout the work, his melodies astonishingly clear over left hand accompaniment. His interpretation was one of the most soft and introspective I have heard to date. From these moments of simple melody and accompaniment emerged complex passagework, veritable pianistic tongue twisters handled with ease by Lugansky. As the passages began reaching upward chromatically towards the dominant, there was a dramatic moment when the orchestra shifted to a foreign key. This moment could have been paced better, but the sense of drama and suspense was upheld in the movement. 

The second movement takes on a quieter character, a delicate melody in the violins gradually panning out through the remaining strings. The piano part serves as a gentle lullaby, showcasing the instrument’s capabilities for warmth and intimacy. While the intricate pianistic passagework involved is impressive, it is the simple melodies that herald a strong emotional impact, as if to represent the quiet contemplations of an individual juxtaposed against the collective voice of the masses. This is perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Lugansky’s playing – while the rapid scales and passagework are played with ease, it is in these technically simple passages that he conveys deep emotional struggle.

In the third movement, the orchestra’s aggressive character gives way to an energetic dance in the piano. Mena’s attitude reflected this new character, his bright and cheerful demeanor visible. The movement’s rapid scalar passages and dance rhythms were interspersed with gentle moments, culminating in the unification of the piano and orchestral forces. Afterward, Lugansky came back on stage to perform Chopin’s Waltz in C# Minor, Op.64 No.2 as his encore. The slower, expressive A section served as a nice contrast to the light and rapid B section.

It was then Mena’s turn to take the spotlight as he conducted Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5. This symphony is the second of the composer’s ‘fate symphonies’, conveying the emotional battle between hope and destiny.  Opening with lone clarinets, the first movement sets a dark and brooding atmosphere, gradually building in texture and dynamics. The orchestra achieved an enormous sound at the dramatic high points of this movement, particular the brass. At times the loud passages could almost be overwhelming, but the tender quality of the second movement served as counterbalance. Sustained chords in the strings create a wide expanse from which a lyrical and serene horn solo emerges. The solo line interacts with other members of the orchestra, eventually taken up in the celli and becoming thematic material for the entire orchestra. This movement was a highlight of the performance, emotionally powerful and full of dynamic contrast.

Mena’s style of conducting was sensitive and rather unique, less forceful and more of a collaboration in music making. A particular emphasis was placed on expressiveness and emotion throughout the symphony. In the third movement Waltz, he was contagiously jovial, dancing on his podium from foot to foot.  The movement was light and dance-like with charming bassoon solos. Mena then went in to full throttle for the dramatic final movement. Opening with tutti declarations, the movement works its way in to driving rhythms alongside prominent brass and percussion. The music whips up in to a frenzy, the strings players sawing away at their instruments while woodwinds ascend and descend in sweeps, bringing the work to an exhilarating close.

On display on this concert were the two faces of Romantic music – the quiet intimacy of the individual and the expressive power of the exalted whole. Lugansky and Mena capitalized on the emotional potential of this music to create an expressive and memorable performance.