Nikolai LuganskyPhoto: Marco Borggreve

The concert by LSO on 8th April 2018 was built around contrasts:  on the one hand,  it featured an almost introspective, part contemplative, part airy Beethoven‘s Concerto №4 which seemed almost to stand apart from the composer’s usual output. On the other hand, it moved to orchestral exploration of completely another matter —  Symphony No 8 by Dmitri Shostakovich, which is well-known to be the darkest in his whole oeuvre. The Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda was leading the London Symphony Orchestra throughout the evening, while the renowned Moscow-born pianist Nikolai Lugansky was performing as a soloist.

Nikolai Lugansky is known for his intellectual, insightful approach to every work he plays.  For this musician the technicalities, the mastery of the instrument is usually only the means to getting into the mind of the composer and understanding the world created in each composition. This way, he reaches the musical depth through ultimate mental and emotional effort. With Lugansky, one always goes beyond the sounds and always trusts the vision of the pianist, as his performance is not only suffused with  music, but also informed through his immersion into philosophy, literature, art and other aspects of life. He is self-effacing: he never brings himself to the fore as a personality during his concert. In fact, he finds the exuberance of the soloists dangerous and leading to limitations in their interpretation. Lugansky makes a continuous effort to adapt his style and approach to the work he performs onstage,  in order to convey its meaning, beauty and message to the public. Beethoven’s Concerto No.4 was the perfect backdrop against which all these talents of Lugansky brilliantly shone, whilst also allowing him to interact with the conductor Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO in the unique manner he only could – a thoughtful, attentive, immaculate and meticulous musical dialogue.

Beethoven’s Fourth quite unusually opens with the soloist playing one of its main choral themes and orchestra starting out slightly later, with the piano always gently, but sturdily and passionately returning to make its progress, which is incredibly light, beautiful and sonorous. It is here that Lugansky displayed his perfect rapport with the orchestra and conductor, always being extremely attentive to the motives repeated or supported in exchanges between himself and the musicians.

Lugansky was at times enjoying the process of performing through a state close to self-objectification: he was listening to the musical pattern as a whole, and that requires another, superior effort from the soloist. It is in the second movement, though, that he took the lead (this movement was once called as Orpheus Taming the Furies) and effectively synchronised with the orchestra. Resulting musical phrases and passages sounded so thought-through, the exact dynamics of each sound so well balanced,  that one could experience these musical thoughts coursing of their own accord during the process of listening. Nikolai Lugansky was revealing layers of Beethoven’s thought and allowing us glimpse similar emotional heights throughout our listening experience. Lugansky has always stressed the importance of a concert as a moment of uninterrupted concentration in contrast to our listening to the music online or on a CD. While listening to him playing,  one had to keep all the pieces of the puzzle in mind, in order to grasp what the soloist and the LSO were trying to convey to the public. The third movement brought the finishing touches to this intricate design, that, despite the introduction of trumpets and drums, with Lugansky in the lead still sounded crystal clear and unbearably light even in the grandeur of the cadenza and finale – indeed, a different, out of  this world, Beethoven.

This layer of intelligence and clarity was indeed needed as an aftertaste, a baseline that could linger in our minds for the next experience to come – the Symphony No.8 by Dmitri Shostakovich, completed within ten weeks and premiered by Evgeny Mravinsky in Moscow on 4th November 1943. It was one of those works by Shostakovich that were condemned after the first performance and then entailed the accusations of formalism by Zhdanov in the late 1940s. However,  for today’s listener,  this symphony is a spiritual legacy bearing the traumatic marks left by terror and horrors of war on the human mind. It unfolds the struggles one had to endure – not against them, but rather under them. Though it is hard to pin it down thematically as the Symphony about the national socialism and its consequences, or a panorama of the ‘sea of troubles”, it is by no means a triumphant piece. Rather, it is the one attempting to tell of the human toll of the tragedy and convey the troubled state of the human mind, protect the remaining memories, express pain and register psychological transformations undergone in the course of such disaster.

Gianandrea Noseda led us through this experience like a captain of the ship through the billowing waters of the raging sea, as this hour demanded for all possible energy from him and the London Symphony Orchestra. The five-movement symphony required a masterful pacing and careful placement of its peaks and subdued moments,  and was like a historical diorama that one had to walk through, so as to experience its depth. Shostakovich’s symphony under Noseda resembled the Hamlet’s sea of troubles against which the orchestra (and the human mind) either took arms or slumbered and survived below, being trampled down by the mechanical invasive march. Gianandrea Noseda was not afraid to plunge into its depths where threnodies of wind instruments resembled of the human voices crying. Then he bravely showed the active, demanding, pushing forward side that was ambivalent in the fact that it definitely was not positive, while being instinctively captivating in its pathos.

In terms of the interaction between the instruments, it was mostly between the woodwind section and the strings that most touching, lamenting or subdued parts were laid out, while it was to timpani, cymbals,  percussion instruments and brass section to communicate power and voice to the three march-like peaks of the symphony. The rhythms were even and direct in these moments, and one felt their power over the human intellect – as indeed these repeating sounds became almost jubilatory in their repressiveness and unending presence. And then, one discovered  the painful, uneven howls, shrieks, distorted long walls of quiet and unnerving sounds that were the aftertaste of the ‘summits’ experience. Thus, with the aid of the LSO and Noseda one was experiencing the emotional journey hardly equalled by any other work in 20th century repertoire. I felt it was especially moving for the Russian mind, as somehow it reflected the clear-cut directness of thinking, or even a somewhat excessive pathos that always strikes the chord in a Russian heart. However, if that was the premonition of Shostakovich about the people surviving the advent of fascism, it could have easily been applied to other nations as well. Everyone was almost speechless after being led through this terrifying roller-coaster experience of sounds and visions by Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO.