Absolute Conviction

From Pianiste, January 2003
Interview by Gaelle Plasseraud
Translated from the original French by Valour

One can well imagine this chess champion and son of scientists, wielding phials and microscopes in a laboratory. That, however, would be forgetting that the piano is equally a field of infinite experimentation. Meet an alchemist of sound.

Decidedly of a reserved, timid nature, in life the tall, fair-haired Nikolai Lugansky obscures his blue eyes behind a serious pair of spectacles. His First Prize at the Chess Championship for Musicians in Moscow (2002) does not, however, obscure his piano playing. The Russian pianist opens the next season at the Theatre des Champs Elysees with l'Orchestre National de France under the direction of Kurt Masur.

Pianiste : At what age did you begin the piano ?

N.L. :  I was five and a half or six years old. My father had bought a small toy piano, and he discovered that I had perfect pitch. This was incredible to him, because he didn't think that such a thing existed. He showed me to some people who knew music and who told him that I should study music. I began the piano with a neighbour, and at the age of seven I began to study at the Moscow Central School of Music, where every child received a professional education.

Pianiste : You chose the piano only because you had this toy ?

N.L. :  The piano is easier. Everyone can play some melodies. It's more difficult to make a sound on the violin or the flute. It's very easy to make a sound on the piano. You can play right away. And so I loved the piano. On the piano, one can play everything.

Pianiste : Was your family musical ?

N.L. :  My father is a physicist, my mother is a chemist. But they loved music very much. At six, I had very little musical experience. Only perfect pitch and the advice of people around me who said it was imperative I should study music.

Pianiste : Did you love the piano right away ?

N.L. :  Yes, I began with this little piano, then I had a Clavinova with pedals, and finally a proper piano, which seemed a marvel to me. 

Pianiste : Who were your teachers ?

N.L. :  First, Tatiana Kestner. After her death, Tatiana Nikolayeva. I was her pupil for nine years. I completed my conservatory studies with Sergei Dorensky, of whom I am now an assistant.

Pianiste : At which moment did you know that you could make the piano your profession ?

N.L. :  I didn't think about it. I was content with playing. I didn't think of the piano as a "job". It was my life.

Pianiste : When did your first concerts happen ?

N.L. :  At school, at the age of seven. There were many gala concerts.

Pianiste : How did your career begin ?

N.L. :  My career began well before I finished my conservatory studies. I never asked myself how I would "make a career". There are perhaps some people who think about making money, about record companies . Me ?  I never thought about these things.

Pianiste : In France, you became known when you were already mature ...

N.L. :  I made my debut appearances abroad when I was a rather young. I was 16 or 17 when I gave a recital at the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam as part of the series "The Young Talents of Russia". I played a lot in the Netherlands, in Germany... In France, I played at Cannes when I was 15. But I was not known until after my recital at the Louvre, in 1998. I was already 25 or 26.

Pianiste : How would you explain the quality of the young musicians coming from Russia ?

N.L. :  It's linked to the teaching. Schools there are very strict, very good. From the age of seven, you receive professional training. Schooling there is very strict, very good.  At twelve or thirteen, the Russian musicians generally play a bit better than those of other countries. It's due to the Russian musical system.  After that, the most important factors are talent, personality, experience and maturity. That depends more on the person than on the school. But it's still impressive to see how young musicians play in Russia today. 

Pianiste : Do you think there is a "Russian Method", one tradition, or does that seem artificial to you?

N.L. :  There is Russian music, there may be a Russian school. There is a Russian system of education but the great Russian pianists all play very differently. Gilels and Richter are very different. According to the traditional opinion, Gilels is more of the Russian school and Richter is more European. As perhaps today Sokolov is more Russian than Pletnev, who is more European. But it's very abstract. 

Pianiste : You play a lot of Russian music ...

N.L. :  At school, I played a lot of European music. When a young Russian musician gives a concert abroad, people ask him to play a lot of Russian music. But I also play Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms... I love Russian music very much, I have a great love for Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Prokofiev.. . My repertoire is very large. I play around forty-five concertos, and of those thirteen or fourteen are Russian.

Pianiste : You seem very attached to the Romantic repertoire.

N.L. :  I play the music that I love, without looking at the style. The golden age of the piano was between the end of the nineteenth and the middle of the twentieth century, and  much of it was tied to Romanticism. But I prefer to play good Classical music over bad Romantic music. It depends on the composer, not the style.

Pianiste : Do you play contemporary music ?

N.L. :  Not much. I once played the Fantasy for Violin and Piano by Schoenberg - and that's not contemporary music - with Vadim Repin, and I played a work of Schnittke with another violinist. The most modern music I played myself were the Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich and the Third Piano Concerto of Bartok. There is a lot of beautiful music from the nineteenth and early twentieth century that I haven't played yet. I cannot do everything !

Pianiste : How do you work on a new piece ?

N.L. :  I play it, very simply. and if I like it a lot, I play it again and again.

Pianiste : Do you always work at the piano, never just with the score?

N.L. :  That happens to me if I don't have time. Sometimes I have to learn a work on a plane, if I didn't have time to prepare a slow movement, for example, but that's accidental. If all goes well, I work with the piano.

Pianiste : In concert, you appear very calm, very poised, so that your playing is very expressive.

N.L. :  That sounds like a compliment...thank you! A concert is for me, an incredibly stressful time. Like anyone else, I am scared, I am nervous. It's a terrible stress, and I am incapable of watching myself play. A nervous person, in order to calm himself, should externalize. At the time of a concert, I am not at all in a normal state. The first part is always a difficult experience, a strain for me. As a person, I am more introverted than extraverted. But I think that when I play Mozart or Rachmaninov, I am two different people. If I play a slow movement of Mozart, for example, I must sometimes be very calm, and it I play the end of a Chopin ballade, I must be very agitated. It's what I do as a pianist.


Pianiste : The sonority seems very important to you.

N.L. :  I have an internal image of the sonority to give to each note, If my sonority is good, that is the result of its conformity to the internal image. There are people who physiologically have a beautiful sonority. There are people who have hands with which playing is easier. For me, it is not very easy. I am quite content, but I don't have the best possible hands for a pianist. Therefore sometimes I must feel my way tentatively. Sometimes I must work too. With each piano, it is necessary to change a little. Certain registers are more brilliant on one piano, sweeter on another, and I must adapt my way of doing things. There are many pianists who don't change a thing, they use the same gestures with every piano and every acoustic. Me, no ... I must find for each piano and each acoustic, new gestures, and that's what makes my life sometimes a bit difficult.

Pianiste : For you, what difference is there between a concert and recording a CD ?

N.L. :  There is a big difference. If I give a recital, just afterwards I can go have a beer ! In a concert you must give the best of yourself in one performance. On a recording, you start out and think of giving your best, and then you listen and you understand that it was terrible and that you must change many things. . The second time, you say to yourself "Now, it's the best". At the end of the second, third, fourth times normally, it's better. But in the end, it's very tiring. It's another manner of working. If one speaks of the result, I am more responsible for the result on the disc. In concert, there are some things that happen, for better or worse. The listeners are also very different, the listening conditions are something else entirely. 

Pianiste : The public - are they a help or a trouble to you ?

N.L. :  Sometimes, they help. Especially if you think you  played very badly and the public is very warm, that can help. When I find that there are too many things that I have not done successfully, sometimes it's very hard - then this warm public is very appreciative. Because if I perceive that it was terrible and that the people think like me... When the public is kind, I try to tell myself that maybe I was mistaken, that it was not such a failure. And during the concert, I need to think that it wasn't so bad after all.

Pianiste : Are you a perfectionist ?

N.L. :  No. A true perfectionist is a perfectionist in every aspect of his life. I cannot say that of myself. I am not a terrific worker. There are pianists who do not live except for their art. Maybe I will get there later in my life, but I am not there yet. 


Pianiste : How much time do you spend working each day ?

N.L. :  It's very variable. Maybe three hours ... Before the Tchaikovsky Competition, I worked maybe five hours a day. There are days of travel or illness when I don't work.

Pianiste : Who are the musicians whose work you most particularly admire ? 

N.L. :  Rachmaninov, as a musician, pianist, composer... as a man too. Michelangeli, Richter, Gilels, Nikolayeva... The influence of Nikolayeva is very strong on me. Radu Lupu, Nelson Freire... It's difficult because, for example, I would like to do many things like Nelson Freire, but I cannot because I am very different. As a listener, I adore his playing but I have different hands, I belong to a different tradition, I have perhaps a different vision of music ... If I tried to do what he does, it would just be a bad copy.

Pianiste : What is the difference for you between playing alone or with partners, with orchestra or in chamber music ?

N.L. :  Chamber music is the most pleasant kind. It's truly the pleasure of music, with friends or with musicians that I adore, that I respect.  With an orchestra, it's very different. It depends on the orchestra and the conductor. One prefers naturally to play with good conductors and good orchestras. The recital is the most difficult kind. It's longer, with a lot of nervous tension, a great expenditure of energy -  and one doesn't know what how it will all come out.

Pianiste : What could you have done besides being a pianist?

N.L. :  There are some things I like very much, games like ping-pong, tennis or chess, but I don't think I could have been a great professional because  the role of nerves is more important there than for music.  My nerves are here and there. For the piano that's still okay, but not for sports. I can't really answer you. My father is a physicist, my mother is a chemist, my grandfather was a specialist in agriculture, my great grandfather was a priest in the Orthodox Church. I respect all these things but they are not mine. I think I am a musician, really. Listening to music is also a big part of my life. When I was a teenager and I was not giving many concerts, I could listen to music eight, nine hours a day -  symphonic music, string quartets ... Maybe I could have been a music critic. But I don't like negative emotions. If for example I have attended a concert which I didn't like, I don't want to express this negative emotion. There are critics who seek to identify the things that they didn't like in a concert. Me, I think that if I didn't like a concert, it's probably my fault, so let's just forget about it !

Pianiste : The critics : do you read them, do you listen to them, or do you avoid them ?

N.L. :  I cannot say that I don't read them. There are critiques that are very intelligent, very instructive. There are also very open critiques. But there are some critics who take pleasure in doing damage to artists, and for all artists, it's better not to read such things.  It's not possible to change my mentality, but there are some things which I've read or heard which have had a positive influence on me. It's a long road, not something done in a minute. I know that there are pieces of advice from Tatiana Nikolayeva which influenced me in a month, in a year... I think that I am quite self-critical and sometimes very harsh. I teach a bit myself, and I know that if I tell a student everything I didn't like in his playing, he won't play better; he might even play worse. He loses his harmony with himself. There are some critics who would like to shake-up artists in this way.


Pianiste : If you were ...

... a novel?

N.L. :  The poems of Boris Pasternak, or a book by Pushkin, or The Devils of Dostoyevsky, but I 'm not like that !

... a film ?

N.L. :  Autumn Marathon, directed by Georgi Daneliya. There are actually two films that I am incredibly fond of : that one and That Obscure Object of Desire directed by Bunuel. Bunuel, he's really the sun, for me.

... a picture?

N.L. :  I don't know. A painting by Titian, maybe.

... a dish? 

N.L. :  Chateaubriand, but well done, very well done ! In France, you eat beef medium at most. When one asks for beef "well done", the waiters take you for a fool.

... a piece of music?

N.L. :  Just one? Oh... I would like to be Mozart's Jupiter Symphony but I think that I am closer to The Bells of Rachmaninov.

... a woman?

N.L. :  Tatiana Nikolayeva.

The Nikolai Lugansky Web Site