Nikolai Lugansky talks to Robert Beattie
Nikolai Lugansky is a former winner of the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition and is one of the standard bearers of the grand Russian school of piano playing. He was taught for nine years by the legendary pianist and teacher, Tatiana Nikolayeva, and he started his international career performing works for 2 pianos with Nikolayeva. He does not play in London anything like often enough but he has given a number of truly inspired concerts and recitals over the past few months. He has an awe inspiring technique – he gave a highly virtuosic performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto at the Proms – but the technique is never an end in itself and always used in the service of the music. His recent recital at the Wigmore Hall showed a true musician and poet at work with Mr Lugansky giving us some highly sensitive and exquisitely nuanced playing of Schubert’s second set of Impromptus and Janacek’s ‘In the Mists ’. He is currently playing at the Edinburgh Festival and will be back in London next month to perform Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO. I spoke to him about his forthcoming concert with Noseda at the Barbican, his background growing up in Moscow and lessons with Nikolayeva, his choice of repertoire and his activities as a chamber musician, recording artist and teacher at the Moscow Conservatory.
Robert Beattie: You will be performing Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto next month with Noseda and the LSO. How familiar are you with this concerto and what draws you to the piece?
Nikolai Lugansky I first learned the Prokofiev 15 years ago and have performed it a number of times. It is a brilliant, bright and sunny piece and it has elements of sardonic humour, all of which make it a highly appealing work. It has none of the melancholy that one sometimes hears in Russian music in spite of the fact that Prokofiev wrote it just after the First World War. Prokofiev was like Mozart in that he wrote music in a very natural and fluent way and he had a genius for melody which really comes through in this concerto. I recently recorded the Prokofiev Third and Grieg concertos with Kent Nagano so I have the piece firmly under my fingers and am looking forward to performing it next month.
RB Are there any recordings you particularly like and are you familiar with Prokofiev’s own recording of the concerto?
NL There is a number of very good recordings and yes, of course, I know Prokofiev’s own recording. He was an excellent pianist and his playing is very precise and energetic although he did not perhaps have the range of colour and technical brilliance of Rachmaninov.
RB You grew up in Moscow and still live there with your wife and children. Can you tell us about your musical education there and how it may have changed over the last 20 years?
NL I was very fortunate when I was growing up in that the standard of musical education in Moscow at that time was probably among the best in the world. I studied at the Moscow Conservatory and received an excellent all round education at the same time as my musical education. I did not pay for anything and, for the best students, specialist music education remains free in Russia and it continues to be among the best in the world. My family liked music but they were not professional musicians so my musical activities and career was completely new to them. I started travelling abroad when I was in my teens and gave a recital in France when I was 15. So I had a lot of exposure to external musical influences and lots of opportunities to give recitals abroad.
RB You studied with the renowned pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva. What was is like having lessons with Nikolayeva and what did you most learn from her?
NL Nikolayeva was a towering musical figure and I learned a huge amount from her. She had an enormous repertoire: she is renowned in the West for her Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich but she also played a huge amount of romantic repertoire and she was one of the first people to play the Bartok Third Piano Concerto and the Dutilleux Sonata. She had very wide cultural horizons and introduced us to a range of musical influences from all over the world. She started travelling and giving recitals abroad in Stalin’s time and during the course of her career travelled further and further afield. She lived and breathed music and could spend between 12 to 14 hours a day performing and talking about music. I did not learn about conventional technique with her such as fingering, hand positions and the other things one normally associates with the Russian piano school. But she had an extraordinary gift in being able to open your mind to music and expose you to new ideas and influences and ways of looking at a score.
RB Nikolayeva collaborated very closely with Shostakovich and Prokofiev – did she talk about her collaborations with these composers?
NL She and Shostakovich were very good friends and remained very close. They first met when she played at the Bach International Piano Competition in Leipzig. She played Shostakovich’s piano concertos and Second Sonata and of course he wrote his preludes and fugues specifically for her and she made three recordings of them. Both she and Richter were among the first to perform the Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto and the Eighth Sonata but I don’t know if she ever met Prokofiev.
RB Do you have any plans to record Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues?
NL I have played four of the preludes and fugues and the two piano concertos but there is a huge amount written for piano and I prefer to work on other repertoire.
RB You have a wide and varied repertoire and have become particularly renowned for your interpretations of Rachmaninov and Chopin. What informs your choice of repertoire?
NL When I am playing concertos, it is the conductor and orchestra who decide on the repertoire 60% of the time. In solo recitals I have more latitude to decide on my own programmes and I always try to introduce new repertoire and to vary my programmes, although I am sometimes drawn to works which I have performed before. I have played around 50 different piano concertos and have performed around 25 different recital programmes.
RB You gave a wonderful recital at the Wigmore Hall recently featuring Schubert’s second set of impromptus, Janacek’s ‘In the Mists’ and Medtner’s ‘Forgotten Melodies’. What drew you to these works and what informed your interpretation?
NL I particularly love Janacek’s music and have performed a number of his solo piano works and the violin sonata with both Vadim Repin and Leonidas Kavakos. Janacek’s music is very emotional and highly original – it is not connected to mainstream European musical influences. The music has a high emotional temperature. I have not played Schubert for 20 years but decided that it was time to play something by him and the four impromptus are of course extraordinarily beautiful works. I hope to perform other works by Schubert in the not too distant future including the C minor Sonata but his music is not a major part of my repertoire. I love performing Medtner and I think his music is becoming increasingly popular particularly given the advocacy of Hamish Milne and others. In the Wigmore Hall recital I played my own version of Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata which is a hybrid of the 1913 and 1931 versions. Horowitz and Van Cliburn both played their own version of the sonata and there are a number of other pianists who have also done so. Rachmaninov is unusual among great composers in that he was never really satisfied with much of his work and he introduced numerous cuts and revisions. The First Piano Concerto, for example, was substantially revised in 1917 after he had written the second and third concertos. Rachmaninov is a composer who I revere but he was happy for others to make adaptations to his music. I felt he left out too much of his own beautiful music when he revised his Second Piano Sonata so I wanted to include more of it in my recitals.
RB Which other pianists do you most admire and why?
NL Rachmaninov will always be the greatest pianist for me. From the previous generation of pianists, I particularly admire Michelangeli, Gilels and Richter. There are many pianists who I admire from the current generation including Kocsis, Hamelin and Volodos but the two who really stand out for me are Lupu and Freire.
RB I particularly love Lupu’s Schubert recordings and Freire has such a wonderful command of tone colour.
NL Yes, indeed. Freire is a very romantic and emotional player and I very much like his performances of romantic repertoire.
The process of playing and listening to music are very different. When I play music, I look at the composer’s detailed markings and study the score very closely but when I listen I am like everyone else and I just sit back and enjoy the music.
RB You have released a critically acclaimed recording with Vadim Repin. How frequently do you perform chamber music and which performers do you like to work with?
NL I spend about 10% of my time performing chamber music and I particularly enjoy working with Vadim Repin and Leonidas Kavakos. I love to collaborate with other musicians and have played in various chamber music ensembles including quartets and quintets. It is important to remember that for composers like Beethoven and Brahms chamber music was enormously important. The Beethoven symphonies are among the greatest works that have ever been written but I think his string quartets are even more important.
RB Are there any conductors you particularly enjoy working with and how do you like to collaborate with conductors?
NL I have worked with many wonderful conductors including Dutroit, Nagano, Pletnev, Oramo and others. They all have different personalities and ways of approaching music. When I play a concerto, I see the pianist as having the principal role in the ensemble and the onus is on me to ensure that we stay together and the performance is a success. I adopt the same approach to concertos as I do to chamber music and think it is of paramount importance to collaborate closely and listen carefully to your orchestral partners.
RB Your recent recording of the Rachmaninov piano sonatas won universal critical acclaim and a number of prestigious awards. What drew you to these works and what recording projects have you planned for the future?
I have played the Rachmaninov Second Piano Sonata for many years and I wanted to commit my own version of the sonata to disc. There are not very many satisfactory recordings of the First Piano Sonata but I really love this music and wanted to record both sonatas. The first sonata is based on Goethe’s Faust with each of the three movements representing Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. Rachmaninov has a religious theme running through the work and he reaches a verdict on Faust and judges him to be guilty. It is very intense and dramatic music. I am very pleased that both the critics and the general public liked the recording.
Earlier this year I recorded the Grieg and Prokofiev Third Piano Concertos and this should be released later this month. I also recorded both of the Chopin piano concertos and this will be released early next year. I have no firm plans to record any new solo piano repertoire but I would like to release a recording of French piano music (possibly including Franck’s Prelude Chorale and Fugue) and Spanish music including Albeniz’s Iberia.
RB I know that you will be playing the Franck next year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall together with Rachmaninov’s Op 32 Preludes. Have you played a lot of French and Spanish repertoire?
NL Yes, I have played ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’ and ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’ and I am looking forward to performing the Franck next year. I love Albeniz’s Iberia as it reaches new heights of pianistic expression and I would love to perform it. Alicia de Larrocha left three recordings of the work and I particularly like the second.
RB You currently teach at the Moscow Conservatory. How do you like to work with your students and what do you see as the most important lessons you can pass on to them? Are you working with any competition winners?
Unfortunately, my schedule does not permit much time for teaching and I only work as an assistant to Sergei Dorensky. There are many gifted and talented young students at the Conservatory and I enjoy listening to their playing and passing on advice. I have had some successes. One of my students, Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev, won second prize at the Cleveland International Piano competition. He is the grandson of Tatiana Nikolayeva and at only 20 he is already a wonderful young pianist.