Nikolai Lugansky Especially Memorable in Rachmaninov

United Kingdom Franck, Prokofiev, RachmaninovNikolai Lugansky (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 14.5.2014 (CC)

Franck                         Prélude, Choral et Fugue
Prokofiev                    Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 29
Rachmaninov            Preludes, Op. 32


Seen by many as some sort of “super-pianist”, Nikolai Lugansky has sometimes seemed – to this reviewer at least – rather inconsistent. Despite the many, many positives of the first half of this concert, part of the South Bank’s International Piano Series, it was really in the Rachmaninov that Lugansky truly showed his stature.

It was good to see the Franck getting an outing, though. This composer’s piano works are generally and inexplicably neglected in the concert hall, and require a specific sort of pianism, a million miles away from the pyrotechnics of, say, Liszt. Franck’s hyper-chromaticism with a Gallic accent requires a pianist completely attuned to his mode of expression, and perhaps it was here that Lugansky just fell short. Despite the clear technical mastery, his upper registers were sometimes lacking depth and the somewhat Russian sense of detachment occasionally left us at a remove, while a tendency to over-project melody was distracting. Nevertheless, the fugue was well shaped.

Lugansky has made several recordings of Prokofiev’s music that have garnered much critical praise. Here the Fourth Sonata of 1917 was on offer; this is one of the ones that reworks earlier material (from 1908) and one which Lugansky has recorded with much success (review). He clearly inhabits Prokofiev’s world more fully than Franck’s, as he carried off this interpretatively tricky piece impressively. From the deeply resonant bass of the opening gestures, through Prokofiev’s typical staccato in the first movement and the granitic climax of the central Andante assai to the joyous final Allegro con brio (here with more the feeling of a Presto) with its perfect trills and its impeccably judged lyric contrast, this was a performance to savour.

Yet it was in the Rachmaninov Op. 32 Preludes that Lugansky hit his stride. The thirteen Preludes emerged as one thirteen-jewelled whole. It was as if Lugansky had identified the heart of each and every one of them, presenting them as a circular string of pearls, each one inevitably leading to the next. There was no sense whatsoever of leading in to the music. The tempest that is the initial C major Prelude set out the stall perfectly, and if Lugansky’s technical prowess was at times mind-boggling, his sweeter – or bitter-sweeter – moments melted the heart, in the B flat minor, for example. The Tenth prelude (B minor) was surprising for the almost Messiaen-like glow of its climax, and if the famous G sharp minor (No. 12) was luminous, Lugansky took the final D flat Prelude and converted it into a telescoped tone-poem.

Encores were inevitable: a glowing Mendelssohn Song without Words, an astonishingly fluent Chopin Etude (Op. 10/8) and finally, the real treat of the trio: Medtner’s Canzona Serenata in a performance that can only be described as delicious. Perhaps this was another nod to a composer who, like Franck, should appear in our concert programmes more frequently?


Colin Clarke

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