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Cleveland Orchestra, guests warm a Blossom crowd’s heart with ‘Romantic Rachmaninoff’

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By Zachary Lewis, special to cleveland.com
CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio – There was much to love about “Romantic Rachmaninoff,” the Cleveland Orchestra’s program Saturday night at Blossom Music Center.
In music, “Romantic” typically refers to a time period or group of composers, but on Saturday, it also summed up how most listeners felt about two major works by one of the era’s dominant personalities, as performed by two eminently qualified interpreters.
Not even wet ground and the lingering threat of more rain were enough to keep a crowd from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3, one of the most famously and fiendishly difficult works of its kind in the repertoire. Someone had signed up to play it, and they weren’t about to miss it.
That someone was Nikolai Lugansky, and they were not disappointed, as their demand for an encore made clear. A veteran collaborator, recording artist, and professor at the Moscow Conservatory, Lugansky made astoundingly short work of the concerto, teaming up with fellow Russian conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky in a cool, steely performance that kept the spotlight on the music, not himself.
Any performance of “Rach Three” is a feat. Lugansky, though, wasn’t interested in showing off. He may have been a gargantuan presence at the keyboard, but his focus was ensuring listeners heard and felt the genius of Rachmaninoff.
Lugansky’s deep familiarity with the score was evident at every moment. With the big picture solidly in mind, the pianist knew exactly how to shape and color everything; when to attack, when to relent, when and whom to accompany, and how to pluck the emotional heartstrings. Performances of this work simply don’t come any more assured, any more thoroughly thought-out.
Right at Lugansky’s side, physically and artistically, was Kochanovsky, future director of Germany’s NDR Radio Philharmonic. The conductor supplied the pianist an alert, unified orchestra, an ensemble every bit as determined and emotionally attuned as their unflappable guest.
Kochanovsky himself turned in a similar performance later, leading Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1. Like Lugansky, he deflected attention away from the podium and onto a work that’s often mishandled and therefore widely underappreciated.
Tedium gained no foothold in a performance that never languished and never lost its drive. The raw vigor that produced a finale bursting at the seams with brass and percussion had already been present since the symphony’s first few notes, since the conductor held the orchestra’s toes to the fire straight through the masterful first movement.
Rachmaninoff’s brilliance as an orchestral composer also shone clearly through the second and third movements, thanks to Kochanovsky’s firm grasp on the material. The fine wind playing of earlier continued, mirrored by string forces as graceful, light, and tightly controlled as a Mariinsky ballerina corps. Rachmaninoff, one suspects, would have been pleased.
At the “Romantic” label, however, the composer might have scoffed. No matter. “Romantic” really was the perfect word. About this program, about these performers, there was nothing not to embrace.
Jul. 16, 2023