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Solo pianist brings 'Rhapsody' to Rachmaninoff

The Florida Orchestra repeats its program at 7:30 tonight at Ruth Eckerd Hall and 7:30 Monday night at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $15.50-$50.50.

Published January 16, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - It takes a marvelous pianist to find something fresh in Rachmaninoff's most famous melody, and Nikolai Lugansky did it. The melody, of course, is the lushly romantic variation that comes about two-thirds of the way through the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Lugansky was the piano soloist in Saturday night's concert by the Florida Orchestra at Mahaffey Theater.

Stefan Sanderling conducted the second of three programs in January of works of Rachmaninoff for piano and orchestra along with Ravel.

Lugansky, who combines awesome power with immaculate playing, took a deceptively offhand approach in the measures that lead into the big tune, and that somehow cut the schmaltz and gave a feeling of surprise to the variation on Paganini's catchy five-note theme that has inspired many a Hollywood composer.

Because the Russian pianist brought an intuitive sense of restraint to the Rhapsody, Rachmaninoff's last work for piano and orchestra, the violent, breakneck sections he had to negotiate were all the more impressive.

Sanderling did a good job of emphasizing the scary aspect of the music through the Dies irae variations, as in the huge brass passage near the end. Unfortunately, a bad flub in the percussion interfered with the piano's final quiet notes.

Lugansky also played Rachmaninoff's much less familiar Piano Concerto No. 1, and it was a treat. The work echoes Grieg and Tchaikovsky piano concertos, to be sure, but it also has plenty of resourceful, interesting writing. The melancholy slow movement was especially beautiful.

Sanderling has styled this month as a French-Russian festival, with Rachmaninoff and Ravel monopolizing things. The only problem is that his mastery of French music can be spotty, despite having led an orchestra in Brittany.

Rapsodie Espagnole, which opened the evening, was strangely cautious, lacking the color and razor-sharp precision of the best Ravel. Individual parts were terrific - bright piccolo and clarinet solos, thrilling glissandos in the harps and strings - but the overall impression was unconvincing. As if to compensate, the brass and percussion sounded bombastic in the finale.

French composer Eric Tanguy supplied the latest entry in Sanderling's ongoing series of surprise contemporary works, with the neoromantic tone poem Incanto, which featured sturdy work by trumpeters Robert Smith and Don Owen.

John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or

[Last modified January 16, 2005, 00:32:15]

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