Interview with Nikolai Lugansky

From Diapason,  March 2003
Interview by Jerome Bastianelli
Translated from the original French by P. Jeanblanc
Edited by Valour

After a triumphal recording of the Preludes, the Russian pianist comes back to Rachmaninov with a recording of his Concertos No. 1 and 3. 

We can no longer introduce Lugansky as a promising young pianist, because the proof has been made, the promises kept, and the prophecy of Tatiana Nikolayeva has been fulfilled : this musician truly is the pianist of today, in any case, one of those who count the most within the generation of talents in their thirties. His pure and poetic playing, which blends power and refinement, lyricism and rectitude, has conquered many music lovers (and pianists!). All of his appearances generate full houses, and this will probably be the case at Mogador, the 12th and 13th of March, for his concerts with l' Orchestre de Paris and Sakari Oramo. Since signing with Erato, he has further accustomed us to an annual discographic success, alternately Chopin or Rachmaninov: the Etudes of one, the Preludes of the other, the Opus 28 of the first... And today, as a survivor of the Warnerian crisis, two concertos, including the emblematic D minor of the second; of Rachmaninov , revered as a spiritual father.

You have just recorded the Rachmaninov Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 with The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Has your vision of the D minor Concerto changed since the first recording, in 1985, with The State Academy Symphony Orchestra of Russia and Ivan Shpiller?

N.L. : I haven't listened to it very often. I remember something quite lyrical, quite melancholy. Really, this is not the disc about which I am most satisfied. Today my conception is, without doubt, more dramatic, more contrasted.


This Third Concerto is well-known, but the First is less so. How would you describe it?

N.L. : When you admire a composer, you love all his works. That is my case, where Rachmaninov is concerned.
But among all of his concertos, the First remains my favourite.Unlike the others, it is not very tragic; rather it is refined, with - of course - great melodic inspiration. Later on, Rachmaninov was to adopt a more somber style with more complex harmonies. With the exception of the Symphony no. 3 - my favourite... it always brings me to tears - all his works from the last period are very dark.


Do you like the composer's famous recordings?

N.L. : Of course, but as a pianist, it would be better not listen to them - they are so incomparable, so unattainable ! In the Third Concerto, he always uses rapid tempos, and he makes four cuts, for which I don't really know the reason. It was perhaps related to the maximum duration that could be supported by recordings of the time. It will be necessary to look into that. But apart from these legendary versions, many pianists have recorded interesting things: Kocsis and Pletnev in the First, Gilels, Argerich and Kissin in the Third for instance.


Last summer, at La Roque d'Anthéron you played your own transcription of some 
pages from Götterdämmerung. Where do they come from?

N.L. : I wrote them on the occasion of December Nights, a festival created by Sviatoslav Richter, held at the Pushkin Museum. In 2001 it was dedicated to Marcel Proust whose work is full of musical references, and especially allusions to Wagner, whose music II was asked to play - like Isolde's Liebestod arranged by Liszt. And since, along with Tristan, Götterdämmerung is my favorite opera, I thought I could write a transcription...


Do you like opera?

N.L.:  Yes, Wagner,  that genius of catastrophe and passion. But, in fact, I don't know other operas very well. Apart from the piano, chamber music is what draws me most.


And transcriptions? Is this a part of Rachmaninov's work that you like?

N.L.: He simply wrote the best transcriptions ! Liszt did a lot of them, but he overloaded the scores. Those of Rachmaninov are more economical, less external. Take the Scherzo from a Midsummer Night's Dream : Liszt would never have transcribed it this way.  He would have added octaves at once, and chords that were more powerful and impressive. With fewer means (which does not necessarily mean fewer technical difficulties!), Rachmaninov is more successful. Following his example, Mikhail Pletnev has also written outstanding transcriptions of Tchaikovsky's ballets (The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty) that have almost become classics in Russia. But some of the pieces are almost unplayable....You must hear them performed by Vadim Rudenko. "C'est quelque chose", as you say in French!


Let's talk about him. Do you often play together, as you've just done at the Châtelet Theatre?

N.L.: We have been friends since we studied together at the Central School of Music. We both performed at the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition. He is a pianist of incredible skill. And it's nicer to play with friends - the stress is not as great and you make your entrance on stage with a lighter step...


Is he also your partner in chess, another art in which you excel ?

N.L.: Yes, but like Vadim Repin and Boris Berezovsky, he doesn't play very well [laughs]. The cellist Alexander Kniazev is better. In Russia, many musicians play chess. It's almost a tradition - Oistrakh and Prokofiev were excellent players. A tournament brought us all back together, in Moscow, in December.


Did you win?

N.L. : No I finished only third, ahead of Anvar Turdief, a violinist in his fourth year at the Moscow Conservatory. He's a good musician, but I think in fact he works mostly on chess. You must practice every day in order to play 
well... it's not like piano ! [laughs]


You don't play the piano daily?

N.L. : Yes I do, as much as possible, but only a few hours. As Vadim Rudenko says: those who work a great deal  probably have nothing else to do!


Tatiana Nikolayeva, who was your teacher, made a now famous prophecy about you, declaring you "the pianist of tomorrow". What do you remember most about her ?

N.L. : Nothing but very good memories. Working with her was a great happiness. She was like the sun - kind, attentive, smiling. I had never seen her angry. She had incredible capabilities, perhaps a wider repertoire than that of  Richter. She played everything! But what she taught me, specifically, is difficult to say. Nothing less that the art of piano, of course !


And today, do you teach it, in turn?

N.L. : After Tatiana's death, I studied with Sergey Dorensky at the Moscow Conservatory. I am now his assistant. In fact I watch him teach - I try to help him a little. But for me it's more a hobby than anything else.


You talked about Proust. Do you like his work?

NL. : When I was a teenager, I read a lot : Dostoyevsky, Maupassant, Proust... But I find literature to be more a sublimation of personal problems than an art, strictly speaking. Now I prefer poetry: Pushkin, Pasternak (I like his verse more than Doctor Zhivago), Goethe, Rückert. When I read Proust again, I find it too long. There's only one perspective, only one person who speaks. That bothers me. Whereas a normal person shares his concerns with friends or family, a writer believes he is authorized to make them known to everyone - that's strange! And film directors do the same - my taste in this area is very narrow anyway, limited to some films of Luis Bunuel: Cet obscur objet du désir, Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie. Belle de jour...


But composers have also sometimes sublimated some of their moral difficulties to achieve masterpieces...

N.L.: Maybe, but for me, music is well above all that. It is really a great art. Perhaps the only one.


And what about painting?

N.L.: Yes, it's true that I also appreciate the art of Titian, Greco, or the Impressionists. When I have two hours free in Paris, I prefer going to the Musée d'Orsay rather than the Louvre which is much too big - as Proust is too long!


What are your discographical plans?

To continue recording Rachmaninov's concertos with the Second and the Fourth. And to record Prokofiev's sonatas. I like his naturalness and his freshness.


So Prokofiev after Rachmaninov?

N.L. : Actually, after Rachmaninov, the other twentieth century composer I love is Sibelius. His music is special, disconnected from all other styles. Among the Russians, I like some pieces by Shostakovich too... but not everything. When he's too close to Mahler, I prefer the original. The same goes for Medtner whom I appreciate a lot, except when his music sounds too much like that of Rachmaninov...


You live in Moscow. How is musical life there?

N.L. : The situation is not disastrous, but still clearly more run-down than twenty years ago. The Great Hall of the Conservatory is regularly filled, but it's almost the only one to offer concerts ; 1800 seats for a city of ten million inhabitants is not much. People sometimes buy some discs but Warner is not distributed there, unfortunately for me!


Do you give lots of concerts?

N.L. : About eighty per year. It's not so easy because I have two children, aged 7 and 4, and the more they grow, the more I realize that the life of a concert artist is difficult to reconcile with that of a father...


The Nikolai Lugansky Web Site