Music - an art of living

From Crescendo, April/May 2003
Interview by Noel Godts
Translated from the original French by Valour

Born in 1972, in Moscow, into a family of scientists, Nikolai Lugansky "fell into music" when he was little, thanks to  his father, whose attentive ear very quickly identified that the child was gifted. He revisits with us, this journey that took him from his piano apprenticeship at the age of six to his current reputation as one of the greatest talents of his generation. He shows a tranquil steadfastness and a lucid assurance in the direction of his career, the overall principles of which lend themselves to the ideal of a simple, natural and passionate life. At 30, he practices his art with heart. At the same time, he keeps a cool head and a desire for continued growth, without aspiring to rival the genius of the great composers .

1988 and 1994 seemed to have been crucial years for you: you had won the International Bach Competition, the Rachmaninov Competition, the Competition for Young Musicians in Tbilisi and finally the Silver Medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Would you have been a competition beast ?

A competition is a great stress and a great event but I cannot say that those years were the most important in my life. In 1988, for the Bach Competition, I was 16; at this age, it's easier, the nerves are rather good. In 1994, during the Tchaikovsky Competition, it was more difficult; I was already 22 years old, I was known in Russia and I felt that I had to win the prize. This was psychologically painful. It all turned out well in the end, but I have no desire at all to relive the experience ! A competition is important for the public, the critics, the media, but it brings nothing creative to the pianist.

But it was necessary, in that era, that you go through these competitions...

I was very happy to be finished with all that. What is bad about a competition is the idea that we can give a mark to music and make comparisons of it. Music is not made to be compared like a sport. I love sports but that's beside the point. Music is an art of living, and notions of "winning" or "losing" should not intervene. Unfortunately, there is no other system. Maybe if you have very rich parents, you are groomed for a career. I don't know if that is better. 

So, what did the Moscow prize bring you after 1994 ?

It was an era where the competition had already lost much of its importance. In 1958, when Van Cliburn took the prize, it opened all the doors. But in 1994, not at all ! As I had begun playing abroad since 1988, in France, Germany, The Netherlands, Japan, competitions had helped my career a bit, but I couldn't say that they changed my life.

What did you take from the teaching of Tatiana Nikolaeva ?

It's difficult to explain, in a few words, "Who was Tatiana Nikolaeva"! I would like maybe in ten or twenty years to try to write a book about her ! She was like the sun.  With her, you knew yourself much better... you could believe in yourself. She was a great musician.  I was not only her pupil; we played music for four hands, we listened to music, to concerts. I was her pupil for nine years, until her death. But I was only eight when I made her acquaintance. She held an important place in my life. I recall a great many things about her, above all her love and her hunger for music. She was always listening to it. She said that she could not understand how one could be tired of it - that was impossible ! She was very open to different styles, and listened to other pianists with great pleasure. She was a great example for me, of how to be a human being, as well as a musician.

Was it difficult, to have to carry this reputation that she had given you, that of "the new great pianist" ?

I believe that the words are not as important as we think they are. I have heard many bad things said about me, too.  I am now at an age where I can remain very calm while hearing different things.

Upon your arrival at Erato, why was your first disc dedicated to Chopin ?

It was a traditional choice. I was not against it. I only had two months' notice before the recording. I had already played the Etudes and those two months I was already very busy with other concert programmes.  But this experience was very interesting. In such a case, one discovers what one is capable of doing. Moreover, the Etudes of Chopin are among the most difficult problems for the pianist: some of them can be played with ease and others, not at all ! It depends on the school of the pianist.

Isn't it a bit dangerous to come out with a disc of both cycles of Etudes so that everyone will go on to make comparisons ?

In concert, it's more dangerous ! Besides, try naming an item of repertoire that would not be dangerous for a first disc !  Maybe very modern music.... It was an idea of the artistic director of Erato at that time; he didn't want that I do very rare repertoire, but rather, that which is "the most beautiful music for the piano".

You made a second Chopin disc at Erato, very well received by the press. Will we see a complete Chopin set  by Nikolai Lugansky ?

Doing a complete set is not, for me, an idea of primary importance. Chopin is naturally on of the two or three composers of whom each not written for the piano was ingenious, but there are maybe one or two of his works which I don't love as much as the others.  Anyway, for this music, you should concentrate individually on each work, that which demands more force, more nerve, and a great deal of life. Doing a complete set implies finding one method, choosing it and then applying it from one end to the other. Conversely, Michelangeli is an important example for me: his repertoire was very small but he invested himself totally in each pieces, with a great love. Each of his interpretations contained a long and individual story, like a great novel.

Is he one of your role models ?

That isn't possible ! He is too great ! All the hours of his life, I believe, were dedicated to his art.

Other than Chopin, who are the composers that particularly inspire you ?

After the Etudes of Chopin,  I recorded Rachmaninov. This is a great passion in my life. Rachmaninov is for me a great example as a composer, conductor, pianist, and human being. He truly had a great soul.

Isn't he also a symbol of one of the last great Romantic virtuosi of the piano, an image that you have not chosen yourself ?

It's journalists who create symbols. Rachmaninov was more than a virtuoso. If you listen to his Vespers, his Bells, his Third Symphony - his music was that of a very somber person, driven by instinct. The passion of his soul showed through his music which alone could express such strong feelings. Literature is much more symbolic.

Does that mean you do not want to be classified as a virtuoso ?

Sometimes I have doubts of being a virtuoso, but yes, people say it. According to the Latin interpretation, the "virtuoso" is someone who takes risks. I cannot say myself if I do that or not. If yes, I am very happy about that. The great performers were all virtuosi :Richter, Gilels, Rachmaninov, Michelangeli... I think it is a mistake not to know how to play scales, arpeggios or octaves ! I don't feel that the word "virtuoso" hides any negative ideas or bad colours.

What is your aim before an audience ? Do you believe you have a mission ?

The distance between the composer and the performer is very great. I can say that Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Brahms and so on, were geniuses. But I cannot say, of a virtuoso pianist, that he is a genius ! The pianist is like a great performer, a translator. God dictates the music to a composer, that's one thing. When the composer dictates it to the pianist, that's another. I am always conscious of this distance between this ingenious composer and myself. My mission is to transport the audience and myself to this ingenious music that I play in concert.  When working, this is my aim.

Are you not able to be content with yourself ?

To be content...that's difficult ! We are human beings, we are beneath contentment !

Who pushed you to do music ?

I fell into it ! My parents are scientists. My father  had bought a toy, a small piano, and while listening to me he said that I had perfect pitch and he showed me to some musicians. I was born in Moscow where the education system, it seems to me, has been the best in the world until now. Children can have a professional education from the age of seven. They study in the same building, and the system takes charge of their education. People without great talent must pay a bit, but for the most gifted, it's free. My first musical experiences were the Moonlight Sonata,  two pieces Quasi una fantasia, et a work by Chopin. I never thought that I would become a musician. I played the piano, I listened to music and it happened naturally.

What were your great musical encounters ?

There were many. Tatiana Nikolaeva first and foremost, for ten years. Tomorrow, I am playing with Vadim Repin! Were are friends but he was born in Novosibirsk, and I in Moscow. He has never lived in Moscow. He left Russia at age 18 or19 and he lived in Europe. We met each other for the first time in Japan, then in the Netherlands... It was always very funny and very interesting. When he proposed that we play a recital together, I obviously agreed. We practiced three times: two days in Geneva, in Tours and in Amsterdam where we gave a small concert in a tiny castle. I played on a very old piano, 150 years old. Tomorrow we are playing for the first time a major recital together. I like very much Mikhail Pletnev, as a pianist and a conductor. He did some fantastic piano transcriptions of Rachmaninov and of Tcha´kovsky (The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty). I like many conductors :Svetlanov, Eschenbach, Gergiev, Chailly...

Could you take on, as Pletnev has, the career of a pianist as well as that of a conductor ?

I think that each musician can direct but it is necessary to have more than a musical education : something in the character for controlling people ! It's also a question of ability, and ability doesn't interest me at all.

You are playing tomorrow with Vadim Repin at the Palais des Beaux-Arts. Has the fact of accompanying a violinist modified your playing, since in a violin sonata, it is the violinist who has the predominant role ?

In this case, it's more chamber music. Anyway, with each new work - whatever it is - I must adapt. In the case of an accompaniment, I must pay more attention to the balance. In any case, for the nerves and the feeling of ease, chamber music is more comfortable than a recital. It's a pleasure for me to play with a great musician, and even more so if he is friendly, like Vadim Repin.

Do you have a dream to fulfill ?

I don't have a specific dream. I would like to do certain things better, to feel more free to learn and to play certain pieces of music in concert. But there are also some very important things in my life that I would not like to lose : my family, my friends, the great musicians I have met, the possibility of studying new concertos. I have played, more or less,  forty-five concertos, but not yet the Chopin No. 1 or the Brahms No. 2...  I would like to work with certain conductors like Mariss Jansons.

If you hadn't gone into music, what would you have done ?

I can picture myself as a teacher, conductor or musicologist... Although I have many other interests such as painting and literature, I could not imagine doing those things professionally.

And if you father had not discovered that you had perfect pitch?

(Laughs) Oh, I 'm sure it would have turned out all the same ! If not that day, in some other way. I had never decided that I should become a musician. It was my life since I was six; I never thought about it. It's as if you asked me, "Would you live or die ?" I would like to live.

Brussels, 19 November 2002


The Nikolai Lugansky Web Site