The first of conductor Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra's two Festival concerts opened with the chords of Rachmaninov's beloved Piano Concerto No 2. The Usher Hall was duly packed to the rafters to witness Nikolai Lugansky's steely mastery of the work and his instrument, alongside the muscle powered sound of the Russian strings.
Pletnev conducted almost all of this passionate work with clinical stick work, no fuss or unnecessary movement. At last, in the slow movement, at the tender return of the theme in the violins, he put down his baton, and seemed to cherish the music he held in his hands.
Lugansky dominates the piano, and can wring electrically ecstatic moments from his virtuosic passages, but both his playing and the orchestra remained strangely unmoving. Despite their dedication and focus, it was a struggle to hear the living and breathing heart of the music. Lugansky's encore, Rachmaninov's Prelude no 5 Op. 32, was more interesting and subtle, making you wish to hear him in different repertoire.
Glazunov's The Seasons was pure balletic entertainment, though at times bewildering in its tableaus of satyrs, ears of corn, roses, and hoarfrosts. With a display of forces unlikely ever to fit into a theatre pit, the RNO and Pletnev, conducting from memory, sparkled their way through the colourful waltzes and pointe work. Perhaps the percussion were a little too loud at times and occasionally the wind intonation wandered. But who cares when you've got seven double basses all swaying like waltzing cornflowers.