The highs and lows of Nikolai Lugansky’s ‘MaRachthon’ at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov: Nikolai Lugansky (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 20.3.2023. (JC)

Nikolai Lugansky

Rachmaninov – 10 Preludes, Op.23; Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42; Études-Tableaux, Op.39

Nikolai Lugansky’s all-Rachmaninov recital at the Wigmore Hall was sold out months in advance, and rightly so; who better to listen to Rachmaninov’s music than Lugansky who, at the ripe age of fifty, had already recorded both the Op.23 Preludes and Op.39 Études-Tableaux not once, but twice? Indeed, those two giant sets of work were played, alongside the Corelli variations, Op.42, a work of considerable scale which seems to shrink in size when sandwiched between the sets of Preludes and Etudes. To present such a mammoth programme is no mean feat even for a seasoned performer like Lugansky. To be sure, there were moments in which the Russian pianist really packed a powerful punch, and there were times when the music didn’t quite connect with the audience.

He with the 10 Preludes of Rachmaninov’s Op.23, his earliest works being presented this evening. Lugansky made his mark on the Preludes early on, drawing a deep, dark, and pensive sound from the piano in the melancholic first Prelude in F-sharp minor. Despite the more dynamic movement of the music in the second Prelude, Lugansky focused on drawing out the long melodic lines underneath the surface rather than focus on the sparkly texture of the relentless semiquavers. He did not yield to the temptation of superfluous colour changes invited by the ever-changing harmony but turned his attention always to the more introverted yet expressive melodic lines. Despite the beauty of Lugansky’s sound and the unique resonance with which he made the piano ring, the tone was rather consistent throughout the Preludes, slightly diminishing the significance of the individual character of each Prelude. The performance could have done with a bit more verve.

Under Lugansky’s fingers, the Corelli variations were darkly dramatic. The resonance which he conjured from the nether regions of the piano created a satisfying vibration, especially at the end of the piece, and Lugansky added his own twists to Rachmaninov’s variations, bringing off-beat rhythms to the forefront, but there were also moments when the music seemed a bit static and ethereal, and I failed to connect with it.

Whatever reservations I had about Lugansky’s performance in the first half completely dissipated in the second half, where under the pianist’s mastery of technique and control, the experimental nature and emotional drama of Rachmaninov’s Op.39 Études-Tableaux revealed themselves. Our ears immediately perked up as Lugansky thundered through the virtuosic first etude in C minor. There was a directness in the sound quality — almost brusque — which worked effectively in creating drama. Lugansky brought to his performance a great sense of direction which gave us a bigger picture of the individual etudes as musical paintings rather than finger studies (pun intended). Rather than watching him tackle various technical difficulties, it was as if we were being guided by him through the unexpected turns in Rachmaninov’s music — especially in the fourth etude in B minor, with all the surprising changes in harmony — making it an exhilarating journey in which we marvelled at the innovative spirit of Rachmaninov. In the famous sixth etude in A minor, sometimes nicknamed ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ — a great stimulus to our imagination, if anything — Lugansky kicked it up a notch, taking the etude at breakneck speed, driving us all to the edge of our seats. Contrastingly, in the seventh etude, Lugansky brought out the enigma and mystery of the music, which bordered on being atonal. With a sense of triumph and betraying not a shred of fatigue after having performed nearly two hours of Rachmaninov’s music from memory, Lugansky concluded the great ‘maRachthon’ (I take full credit as well as responsibility for this term) with the victorious Etude in D major, demonstrating why the Op.39 Études-Tableaux, as a complete set, is such a great work.

As if to hammer home the idea that he truly wasn’t tired at all, Lugansky went on to perform two encores, one being the Rachmaninov’s transcription of Kreisler’s Liebeslied, the other being the Oriental Sketch in D minor, the last piece Rachmaninov wrote before he left Russia in December 1917, as Lugansky informed me after the concert.

Jeremy Chan

Leave a Comment