That Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 2 in G major is constantly overshadowed by its famous predecessor – due to its allegedly musical inferiority – was seriously questioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's performance of this piece in Leeds Town Hall. Led by their Chief Conductor Vasily Petrenko and with the solo part played by Nikolai Lugansky, they succeeded in turning all the peculiarities of this concerto into a virtue and made the audience wonder why this music has been so neglected.

Nikolai Lugansky © Marco Borggreve | Naïve Ambroisie
Nikolai Lugansky
© Marco Borggreve | Naïve Ambroisie

In the first movement, which is indeed uncommonly long and somewhat difficult to follow with its various musical themes, the musicians drew attention to the rich varieties of melodic ideas. Furthermore, while it is unusual that one movement includes several piano solo episodes, these sometimes virtuoso, sometimes lyrical cadences brought about a very intimate sound, forming a contrast to all the tumultuous tutti sections. Lugansky – always full of expression, but without a tendency to romanticize – elicited all the different shades of this music. In the last cadence, with scales running up and down and chords jumping, one could actually see the hands of the pianist fly, who seemed to be much more relaxed after this feat of strength. The RLPO scintillated with a splendid articulation and dialogues well coordinated with the pianist. In the end, I could not help but get the impression that this piano concerto does comprise many aspects that make the previous one so popular, like the richness of catchy melodies, the brilliance of the piano part or the confrontation of dramatic and lyrical sections.

Right at the beginning of the second movement, we encountered another peculiarity: the pianist paused, while a solo violin took on the role of the soloist (joint leader Thelma Handy) and – with a wonderfully warm sound – introduced the first subject. Shortly after and equally expressive, a solo cellist (section leader Jonathan Aasgaard) joined in and a private dialogue between the two developed, thoughtfully accompanied by the orchestra. When the pianist finally resumed his role, a peaceful musical atmosphere evolved, characterised by tender, wide-spanning melodies. The string duo took the floor once again, followed by a piano trio section within a gentle orchestral background. This simultaneity of grand symphonic and intimate chamber music elements is highly atypical of a Romantic piano concerto but contributes to the originality and uniqueness of this work of art. With an overall structure of a momentous first movement, a slow movement in the middle and a lively rondo at the end, it displays the same (classical) formal dramaturgy as the famous First Piano Concerto.

In the third movement, dramatic passages alternate with dance-like sections which occasionally inspired Petrenko to prance a little on the stage. What repeatedly attracted my attention were the refined and well-articulated phrase endings by the orchestra as well as the pianist. Not less impressive than the First Concerto, this piece came to an end with such powerful sounds that even the grand piano was shaking.

The dramatic fanfare at the beginning of Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 4 in F minor, perfectly intonated by the brass section, introduced the second half of the concert and instantly captivated the audience in the sound world of this great symphony. The RLPO – celebrating its 175th anniversary this year – delivered an excellent interpretation with perfectly balanced tempi and a dynamic, multifaceted sound which was never exaggerated in an overly Romantic manner. Petrenko does not require redundant, effect-seeking gestures to achieve a sweeping performance; his motions are defined and delicate. While the second movement was characterized by both a compelling beauty of sound and a feeling of melancholy (both of which might be intertwined for Tchaikovsky), the third movement presented a sparkling soundscape as the strings played pizzicato all the time.

In the final movement, the RLPO masterfully managed the fast tempi, the quickly changing dynamics and altering musical characters. When the Town Hall was already trembling with a full orchestral sound, the symphony was concluded with an almost ecstatic crescendo and booming chords that made one or two listeners jump. The audience in Leeds Town Hall paid its tribute to a splendid symphonic evening of Tchaikovsky with much applause.

****1