Arts Desk

Big Talent, Not Much Personality: Nikolai Lugansky at the Kennedy Center

NOCSP_LUGANSKY_400If you were to place classical pianists along a spectrum, you might picture one with Maurizio Pollini at one end and Lang Lang at the other. I'm not talking about skill—I'm talking about something a little less tangible: Call it panache, showmanship, self-aggrandizement, whatever. Of course, putting famous people on that spectrum skews to the Lang Lang side. All successful soloists have to do something to stand out, usually something beyond simply being good. But those on the other end are more content to establish their reps on precision and technical expertise than on flair and heart. As Pollini can attest, it’s a style that can invite accolades but also comparisons to dead fish, often both in the same review.

Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky, performing this week with the National Symphony Orchestra, falls more on the Pollini side of that spectrum. He’s undoubtedly good enough to impress viewers with his technique—anyone who plays Prokofiev’s third piano concerto in public better be—but not enough to leave a very lasting impression.

In this case, the composer shoulders some, maybe most of the blame. Prokofiev wrote his third and most famous concerto (diatonic scale, pleasing folk melodies) for an American audience that famously didn’t get it. Our collective shoulder-shrugging helped convince the Russian composer who'd fled the Revolution to flee back to Europe and eventually repatriate to the Soviet Union. It’s a tough piece for a soloist in the sense that it doesn’t put the soloist front and center; the woodwinds do a lot of the thematic work and, rather than the orchestra bowing before the pianist, often the pianist accompanies the orchestra.

So Lugansky did exactly what the piece called for him to do: be a team player, do his part, and not showboat. When the piece called for aggression, he attacked, but most of the time played it cool and very close to the keyboard, with any emotion carefully under wraps. His perfect posture never relaxed, and when not playing, he placed his hands in his lap and looked up expectantly like a kid who finished his exam early. Yet whenever the piece required heavy lifting, he delivered, most notably in the final movement, when the piano and orchestra come together in a tremendously difficult, perfectly synchronized, rapid-fire climax.

Guest conductor Cornelius Meister mostly played it cool as well. He even showed up dressed in NSO director Christoph Eschenbach’s trademark loose, black nehru jacket, as if trying to trick us into thinking that Eschenbach had flown back from Europe and somehow grown a full head of hair. (Or maybe the black nehru is a German thing? I don’t know.) The two non-solo pieces he led, Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and Mozart’s 40th Symphony, had some flaws, but also some nice personal touches. Calm Sea is not one of Mendelssohn’s better known (or better, period) works; the opening was hesitant and wobbly, but Meister created a nicely layered effect with differing levels of vibrato within sections. Mozart’s 40th is the kind of piece any orchestra musician can play on autopilot, so there’s little a conductor can do with it without making it sound weird. Meister exaggerated the tempo differences between movements such that the andante felt (appropriately) languid but the allegro rushed.

With Eschenbach gone, again, the NSO has the opportunity to showcase some new blood. With someone as young as Meister, it's certainly new; with someone as no-nonsense as Lugansky, it’s also a little bloodless.

The program continues Friday, April 18 and Saturday, April 19 at 8:00 pm at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $10 – $85.

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