Interview with Nikolai Lugansky

From Spring 2000
Interviewer: Gerrard Mannoni
Translated from the original French by Valour

To a little extent, Lugansky still resembled a competition-beast, lauded with prizes and pianistic medals. In short, not the type that would excite music lovers bored by the young, sweet, tender prodigies emerging from these circuits. And then suddenly, Lugansky climbed a pianistic mountain, and with excellence: the Chopin Etudes

Q: You began the piano at the age of five and your parents, both scientists, were not musicians. At what point in time did you really choose music as your profession?

I could say that I had never consciously made a choice, and that I was simply predestined to be a pianist. At seven, I entered the Central School of Music of Moscow - which was the best for children - and I immediately started to give concerts, before even knowing what the job of a musician was. It's not easy for me to say when I really chose because nothing other than music interested me. It was not my parents who pushed, but it was me who wanted to play, to listen, to read as much music as possible. But I have some points of reference that let me locate the moment when I understood that I would never do anything else. I was approximately fifteen years old and I had just won the Bach Competition of Leipzig, in 1988. My teacher, Tatiana Nikolaeva asked to me whether I would agree to play the Rachmaninov Third Concerto in Scotland. I had never worked on it before. I learned it in three days, I played it to her, and she was so satisfied with it that she wouldn’t believe that I had never worked on it before. The same phenomenon had occurred sometime before with a Mozart concerto, and that convinced me that my capacity to decipher and memorize music was not quite normal!


Q: Did you never encounter real difficulties in your work?

I always had this facility to decipher and retain pieces. On the other hand, when I started to question myself, at about fifteen or sixteen, I realized that I did not have the steely technique that my contemporaries had - because my teachers had not pushed me in this direction. They had been more concerned with interpretation than with virtuosity. I then had to build my own technique all alone. And as soon as you start to look into your own technical problems, they multiply. I can say that I forged my technique by myself, that it was neither natural nor precocious. Perhaps my leanings on this question came a little late, even. I have just recorded the Chopin Etudes at the age of 27, and I do not think that I could have done it four or five years ago in such a satisfactory way.


Q: You are the pupil of Tatiana Nikolaeva. She was a very great artist. What did she impart to you ?

Naturally she taught me much about the art of the piano. But I believe that her principal contribution was something else - she had an absolute passion for the music in all its forms: symphonic, chamber, vocal, solo instrumental. She was insatiable and didn't understand how one could ever tire of hearing music. During my last three or four years of studying with her, we would listen to music, on records or in concert, for six or seven hours a day. Many pianists do not have this curiosity for the great symphonic repertoire nor for that of Lieder, for example. For me, it was an extraordinary experience that enabled me always to place what I play in the general context of the composer or the time period. I have kept this taste and this curiosity.


Q: Because of your training and owing to the fact that you are 27 and have long been on the concert platform, how did you build your repertoire?

For a long time, up to the age of fifteen or sixteen, I played absolutely everything that fell into my hands. I played it more or less well, but always with immense pleasure. And then, I started to be more precise in my choices. First there were the competitions. For the Bach Competition of Leipzig and under the influence of Nikolaeva, I did a lot of work on Bach. Then it was Rachmaninov for the Rachmaninov Competition of Moscow. Today, I have sort of abandoned Bach, but not Rachmaninov. Also at the beginning, I accepted all the concertos which orchestras required of me. Since I could learn them quickly and play them, why refuse? Now I make my choices. In fact, there is hardly any composer for whom I do not feel ready, except for Liszt. I would still prefer to wait a few years to approach it really in-depth and not only for the virtuosity. For me, the music must generate an emotion and not to be only intellectual. I hardly advance beyond the great names of the twentieth century like Ravel, Prokofiev, Bartok or even Shostakovitch. Purely conceptual music has no attraction for me. I play very  little Bach because I find that it fits badly in a program with other composers. It would have to be played all alone.


Q: You play a great deal with orchestra. Do you manage to establish real and enriching  relationships during these short meetings with the great conductors?

It is very rare. These meetings are generally very short and very superficial. We often have only one rehearsal, and those conductors who take the time just to ask you to play a little without the orchestra to know your playing are few and far between. With Kent Nagano and Mikhail Pletnev, I believe I have established a truly constructive relationship, by taking time to discuss, to explain, exchange, and not only to set up rhythmically. Of course, as we all are very professional, we could even play without any rehearsal and many conductors would be quite satisfied. I find this situation far from satisfactory. Just because I can learn a piece by heart very quickly, that is not to say I have assimilated it with my deepest sensibilities and that I can play it in the same spirit as the conductor. Only the real work of rehearsal can make it possible to arrive at that point, as one does in chamber music.


Q: Do you like to record?

I believe that few pianists would say "yes" to that. Recording is neither a natural process nor a pleasant one. In addition, one is very seldom content with the result. One builds little by little an interpretation which is supposed to be perfect. It is in the end rather artificial. A direct recording has the advantage of capturing the emotion of one precise moment, most often imperfect. A disc is rather like a document - a testimony.  Obviously it would be necessary to record  everything anew every ten or fifteen years, because one does not stop evolving. It would not be inevitably better, but different. To my knowledge, the only pianist who played in exactly the same manner in concert and in the studio is Michelangeli. He was a special case.


Q: Do you think that there has always been a very strong school of Russian piano?

If you ask me that question under this reform, I say yes. If you ask me whether there was always a Russian school of piano, I say no. We always had excellent schools of piano in Russia, very strict, very rigorous. Anyone who has the talent can learn his trade perfectly. If you wish to speak of interpretation, of a more or less Russian character, that is another problem. I believe that we all have our own personality, and that is something that completely escapes teachers or schools.

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