I believe in God because there is music

From Concert-Radio, June 1996
Written by Wenneke Savenije
Translated from the original Dutch by Eric Noya
Edited by Valour

There is something very special about the phenomenal pianist Nikolai Lugansky, whose brilliant technique and intense poetic musicality are beyond any doubt. As soon as he takes his place at the piano and starts to play in his perfectly modest way, one ought to forget his physical presence on the stage. Lugansky live radiates a wonderful kind of modesty, but the music sounds more magical and personal than ever before, whichever composer's music he is performing. "Don't look at me, but just listen to how beautiful the music is", Lugansky seems to express, without falling into the trap of "See how I sigh." With the conviction of a sincere, pious priest who wants to introduce his followers to God's heavenly beauty, Lugansky leads the listener in a voyage through all the layers of a composition. What treasures Lugansky can discover, in even the most well-known pieces, borders on the unbelievable. Just as if he possesses the alchemists' "Stone of Wisdom", he transforms every note into a precious jewel. With his long, slender fingers, he weaves delicate patterns of pure gold, illuminating all the hues of the rainbow, presenting the hidden emotions in the score. His magical touch, structural insight, and the singing lines with which he exposes the music are reminiscent of the legendary pianist Sviatoslav Richter.



"Many people think they chose their own lives, but I think that life decides what becomes of a person", Lugansky says. If his father had not discovered his perfect pitch by accident, then he might have become something other than a concert pianist - for example a physicist, like his father, or a chemist, like his mother. "At our old flat in Moscow we had a little piano that was played occasionally by my father. When I was a toddler - it seems to be true - I pointed out his mistakes, and in this way, he discovered my perfect pitch. My father thought it was a miracle. He dragged me to music-schools and musicians, just to find out how to deal with such a talent.  We spent every summer in our dacha, a modest country house near Moscow. There we had a neighbour who had studied at the Moscow Conservatory. When my father asked him for advice, he told him to send me to the Central Music School of Moscow. For that I am indebted to my neighbour, because I believe there is no better musical education for children. There was as much attention paid to music as to general development. The first three years I had lessons from Tatiana Kestner, who was a good friend of Tatiana Nikolaeva. Both of them had studied with the famous Russian piano pedagogue, Alexander Goldenweiser. When Tatiana Kestner passed away, I almost automatically became a pupil of Tatiana Nikolaeva, first at the Central Music School and later the Moscow Conservatory. For twelve years she was my mentor; she was not only a phenomenal musician, but also a very special person. She was incredibly open-minded. Her repertoire encompassed almost all the works for piano, written or transcribed. I think she had the biggest repertoire of all pianists. Although she was the opposite of a 'specialist', she had her personal conceptions of several composers and styles. In The U.S. she was very famous for her performances of Bach and of Shostakovich, who wrote several pieces for her. But in fact she played anything, and it all sounded impressive."



According to Lugansky, it is an illusion to think you can switch off your personality while giving a successful performance. Just "playing the notes", a common thing with specialists, is impossible to him. "Music lives by the grace of the performers. Every performer has his own personality, and therefore every performance of a piece sounds different from every other. When the same pianist performs the piece several times, it turns out different each time. Because his mood changes by definition, it is reflected in the music. Just as every interpreter puts his stamp upon the music, every composer puts his stamp on the music. There is no such thing as a Romantic style; only the mediocre composers can be categorized in such a way.

"Every truly great composer has his distinct style. The style of Mozart is not 'Classical', it is Mozart! The same applies to men of genius like Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. For the same the reason it is impossible to imitate other pianists. I am a great admirer of Rachmaninov, Richter and Michelangeli - completely different pianists with very distinct styles. Maybe my musical approach most resembles that of Michelangeli. He said that a pianist should be the priest of the composer. That's why his Beethoven sounded different from his Schubert, and yet one immediately recognizes Michelangeli's style! That is my dream. In every note of Chopin I want to show it is Chopin, but also Lugansky."

Even people who dislike religion cannot help but feel the "religious" aura of his fascinating interpretations. For the orthodox-believing Lugansky, who allowed his six-month old daughter to be baptised, music is equivalent to God: "I wouldn't believe in God, if there were no music. I worship God because so much wonderful music has been written. We musicians are here to serve the music, the music always being greater than the performer. "Music is always and everywhere. For instance, the 40th Symphony by Mozart. That just came directly from God: Mozart only had to pluck it out of the air. He saw all the music within a split-second, just like holding an apple in his hand. Those were the happiest moments in his life. He only had to write it down, which was amazing because it took so much time. But what is the 40th Symphony? Is it the score, the CD, or is it the melody that I can sing? Or is it only the 40th Symphony when an orchestra plays it, or is it the 40th, when someone plays the piano transcription? What I am trying to say is, it is not like a chair at which you can point. The 40th Symphony of Mozart exists always and everywhere - it only needs musicians to translate it into something tangible. It is like Dante's Divine Comedy - if it had not been translated from Italian into Russian, that would not mean that for a Russian, the Divine Comedy does not exist."



When he is asked who he considers the greatest composer of all time, he answers without a doubt: "Bach. Bach was a culmination-point, but he was even more than that. His music was blatantly religious, full of symbols. It is a pity that the Western world has such a conservative tradition at the moment, resulting in people only wanting to hear pieces played on authentic instruments. Even though he wrote for the harpsichord, I prefer to play Bach on the pianobecause I think the sound is much nicer and richer."

Contemporary music has changed a lot. "Ravel, Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss all lived in the 20th century, but their music stems from the 19th century. I think Prokofiev and Bartok were high points, and after that it went downhill. Properly speaking, that process has been going on for a long time; Nobody ever surpassed Mozart. Just about fifty years ago composers played their own works. I think we are now living in the great age of performers. Solo performance is a 20th century phenomenon. Therefore we owe this century men of greatness like Richter and Heifetz."

Back to The Interview Room

Back to Homepage