Electrifying, Revelatory Playing from Lugansky

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Janacek, Schubert, Medtner, Rachmaninov: Nikolai Lugansky (piano), Wigmore Hall 5.5.13 (RB)

Janacek: In the Mists
Schubert: Four Impromptus D935
Medtner: Forgotten Melodies
Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata in B flat minor Op 36

Nikolai Lugansky is a former winner of the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition and a consummate technician who is rightly renowned for his interpretations of Rachmaninov and Liszt. The fact that he has a colossal technique is not in question but I was intrigued to see him tackling in this recital not only the original version of Rachmaninov’s second piano sonata (one of the most technically demanding pieces in the repertoire) but Schubert’s second set of impromptus.

The recital opened with Janacek’s ‘In the Mists’ which is a set of four poetic masterpieces inspired by Moravian folk music. Lugansky began in reflective mood coaxing a gorgeous golden sound from his Steinway which succeeded in drawing the listener in. He used rubato in a natural and intuitive way which allowed the music to flow and bloom and demonstrated his ability to make the piano sing. The second movement alternates between stately elegance and manic interludes: Lugansky deployed a range of tone colours to underscore the distinctive features of the contrasting sections. The Andantino was a model of soft hued lyrical refinement with Lugansky subtly blurring some of the harmonies to create a sense of resonance. He made the most of the dramatic folk elements in the Presto while the rhythmic subtlety was handled deftly.

I was very impressed with the Janacek but Lugansky’s performance of the Schubert was a complete revelation. There was a noble quality to the opening of the first of the F minor impromptus and the rustling semiquavers were beautifully controlled with Lugansky handling the harmonic shifts with acute sensitivity. The A flat melody was absolutely gorgeous with Lugansky giving us some highly cultivated cantabile playing. The middle section was pure poetry with Schubert’s wonderful melodies floating above perfectly controlled semiquavers. The phrasing of the A flat impromptu was refined and beautifully tapered and Lugansky kept his velvet gloves firmly in place while making the most of the dynamic contrasts. He began the B flat impromptu with a slight spring in his step and brought out the distinctive Viennese charm of each of the variations. He navigated his way perfectly though the emotional shifts of the B flat minor variation finding the poetic transcendence at the heart of the work. He seemed to tickle the keys in the final variation bringing out the joie de vivre and supreme elegance. The opening of the final impromptu was spiky and acerbic but again Lugansky was completely at ease in handling Schubert’s enchanting emotional shifts and used a range of sonorities to bring out the distinctive features of each of the sections. This was absolutely stunning Schubert playing and it places Luganky in the very front rank of pianists.

We moved between a cultivated poetic sensibility in the first half of the recital to highly charged virtuosity in the second. Lugansky opened with three of Medtner’s ‘Forgotten Melodies’: the title unfortunately sums up the situation in which the composer now (rather unfairly) finds himself. The first was a rustic dance which was dispatched with aplomb and toe-tapping bravura. The second was ‘Canzona Serenata’ which Lugansky played as an encore following his recent performance of The Tchaikovsky B flat minor concerto at the Festival Hall. This was moody and atmospheric and the expansive romantic melodies were allowed to sing out in an unbridled way. ‘Primavera’ was the final work in the set and it is a technical tour de force – the sparkling passagework was dispatched with brilliance and finesse.

The final piece in the recital was Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata in B flat minor: Lugansky opted to play the more technically demanding 1913 version rather than the revision of 1931. In the first movement, the swirling torrents of notes were dispatched effortlessly while the octave passages were played with explosive power. Rachmaninov’s brooding melodies sang out effortlessly above the dense textures and Lugansky succeeded in delineating the structural architecture of the movement and in allowing the emotional intensity to build. The slow movement was given a full blooded rendition with Lugansky caressing the phrases and bringing out the inner voices beautifully. He really let rip in the cadenza and you had the sense of dark passions being unleashed. The finale was a blistering tour de force with Lugansky giving the movement rhythmic propulsion and power and negotiating the fleet fingered passagework with consummate skill. The final rendition of the big romantic tune was given the full orchestral treatment while the coda was absolutely electrifying.

Lugansky played 3 encores: a lyric piece by Grieg and Rachmaninov’s preludes in C minor and G minor. Some of Lugansky’s advocates have compared him to the great Sviatoslav Richter – which I have always shied away from in the past. However, having heard this recital, and particularly the performance of the Schubert impromptus, I think the comparison is apt and we are beginning to see a really great pianist emerge.

Robert Beattie