Lugansky: a Pianist of Awesome Talent

United StatesUnited States  Chopin and Liszt: Nikolai Lugansky (piano), University of Washington President’s Piano Series, Meany Hall, Seattle. 15.11.2011 (BJ)


Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60
Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45
Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Op. 54
Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27 No. 2
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52


Années de pèlerinage I:
No. 6, Vallée d’Obermann
Années de pèlerinage II:
No. 4, Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este
No. 1, Sposalizio
Études d’execution transcendante:
No. 12 in B-flat minor, Chasse-neige
No. 10 in F minor, Allegro agitato molto

An evening shared between Chopin and Liszt is sure to test anyone’s pianism. In this Meany Hall recital, Nikolai Lugansky showed himself able to realize even the most taxing works on his well-planned program with commanding artistry.

Half of the UW President’s Piano Series evening was devoted to Liszt, in celebration of the composer’s bicentennial year. In addition to two Studies in Transcendental Execution, the young Russian pianist offered three large-scale pieces from the Years of Pilgrimage, thus emphasizing not just the technical brilliance of Liszt’s writing but also the musical substance that usually underpins it. His performances were exemplary in tonal clarity, textural richness, and what George Bernard Shaw used to call “marksmanship.”

Curiously for so vitally communicative a musician, Lugansky’s platform manner, while eminently dignified, seemed almost designed to keep the audience at arm’s length. He tended to turn his head towards the back of the stage at particularly eloquent moments, and this, coupled with the distraction provided by Meany Hall’s newly instituted practice of filling a large screen with a completely unnecessary image of the pianist on stage, was the only – admittedly minor – negative aspect of the evening’s performances.

Beginning with Vallée d’Obermann, from the Swiss year, Lugansky was at pains to extract all of the intensity from the music’s obsessively chromatic line and harmony – this was a d’Obermann with plenty of bite. Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este and Sposalizio ranged easily between filigree fleetness and full-toned rhetoric, though there was a somewhat troubling tendency in the Jeux d’eaux to let top notes of phrases emerge too strongly even when they were not the most important ones in their respective groups, rather as George Szell used to do in his conducting.

At anything above the softest dynamic level, Lugansky’s tone was noticeably more incisive, less warmly rounded, than in his recently released CD of some of the same works. But this was certainly no handicap in the 10th and 12th of the Transcendental Studies, which were dispatched with an often breathtaking brilliance and rhythmic zest. Similar virtues were on show before intermission, in an equally substantial group of Chopin works including the great Barcarolle, the Fourth Scherzo, and the Fourth Ballade. Yet the C-sharp-minor Prelude from Opus 25 hinted that perhaps introspection is more Lugansky’s natural strong suit than all those dazzling fireworks, and indeed, for me, the most memorable playing of the evening came in his eloquently hushed performance of the exquisite D-flat-major Nocturne, Op. 27 No. 2.

Comparisons with Sviatoslav Richter, already beginning to be made by some Lugansky fans, are perhaps a shade premature. He does not yet possess the late master’s ability to create vividly differentiated tone-colors in every strand of a texture. But that will probably come, and already this is a pianist and musician of integrity and awesome talent.

Bernard Jacobson


A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.