The members of a relay team often have different strengths. For this second Orchestre de Paris leg of the Philharmonie's Rachmaninov Weekend concerto marathon, Denis Matsuev – who had pounded through the opening night – passed on the baton to Nikolai Lugansky and Behzod Abduraimov for the First and Second Concertos respectively, the former also dispatching a mercurial Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It was an altogether more enjoyable concert, often superb, aided by anchorman Stanislav Kochanovsky on the podium.

Nikolai Lugansky © Marco Borggreve
Nikolai Lugansky
© Marco Borggreve

Lugansky opened by making a very convincing case for the Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor, an early work started when the composer was a student at the Moscow Conservatoire and his official Op.1. Rachmaninov revised the concerto completely in 1917, shortly before leaving revolutionary Russia, tightening up the Chopinesque finale in particular. Playing this revised version, Lugansky was declamatory but without hectoring in the opening gestures. He will suddenly lift his left hand far above the keyboard, as if stung by a bee, but there was nothing stinging about his touch, which was as light as honey, without reducing the music to syrup. The first movement was heart-on-sleeve stuff, but nuanced and carefully controlled too – musically disciplined as often with this thoughtful Russian. He took the huge chords of the cadenza in his stride, his tone ringing without being clangorous. After a sensitive account of the Andante cantabile, Lugansky hurdled the challenges of the Allegro scherzando finale with aplomb, the orchestra's response vibrant if not always rhythmically alert.

“A good conductor ought to be a good chauffeur,” Rachmaninov once said, “the qualities that make the one also make the other. They are concentration, an incessant control of attention, and presence of mind; the conductor only has to add a little sense of music.” Stanislav Kochanovsky was a reliable chauffeur indeed, steering the Orchestre de Paris securely through most of the matinee, the only major mishap being the opening pizzicato to the 19th Variation in the Paganini Rhapsody, which landed with the messiest splat, all the more of a pity as it followed Lugansky's eloquent account of the famous 18th Variation. Most of the work's fireworks fizzed and there was plenty of menace in the Dies irae quotations too, echoed in Lugansky's encore, the Prelude in C sharp minor, full of Russian anguish and tolling bells.

Behzod Abduraimov © Evgeny Eutykhov
Behzod Abduraimov
© Evgeny Eutykhov

Bells toll at the opening of Rachmaninov's C minor concerto too, sandwiched in the middle of this programme. Behzod Abduraimov ensured a big gradation of dynamic in the pealing before diving into the broiling bass pedal notes as the orchestra launches the great yearning theme. This is the romantic quality, the “gushing tunes” the critics cite to dismiss much of Rachmaninov's music, yet it's precisely this quality the public loves and one sensed the Philharmonie audience lapping it up. Abduraimov gave a superb account, ardent but never stretching the musical line too far. He watched Kochanovsky like a hawk in those moments – frequent in this concerto – where the orchestra takes the lead and the piano accompanies; he knew when to give way in the dialogue, so the clarinet was given space to bloom in the Adagio sostenuto. Kochanovsky, eschewing baton here, encouraged the cellos to swell and swoon... and who can blame them when faced with such terrific pianism? Abduraimov's wistful sign-off celebrated Rachmaninov as transcriber, his arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Lullaby rippling with lacy delicacy.

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