Interview of Nikolai Lugansky, filmed by Erato in November 1999.


Q: Nikolai Lugansky, could you please tell us how you came to play the piano ?

It was very accidental - very unexpected for my parents and for the friends of my parents. Before I was born, my father said that there would be a musical instrument in our flat only after his death. He said that because he saw how difficult it was to study music - how terrible it was for the parents always saying to the children ĎPractice, practice !í And he didnít want it to repeat in his family. Neither my parents nor my relatives were musicians. My father is a physicist, my mother is a chemist, and I was the second child in the family.

I think that when I was five, my father bought an instrument, it was a very, very small piano, with about one and a half octaves. And there was one melody on the score on this pianette. It was the Soviet song Let the Sun Always Shine. I remember this: he tried to play this melody in the other room - I was five - and I told him that he played it wrong and that it should be a G and not an A; (sol, not la). He was very surprised, and he started to analyse my pitch: I had perfect pitch. And that was for him an unbelievable thing. He hadnít ever met anyone with perfect pitch before. There are many, but it made a great impression on him.

He first sent me to the very simple normal school with some music. But then we were lucky. Our neighbour in the dacha - many Russians have dachas, a very simple Russian peasant house in the countryside - was a rather old man who had studied at the Moscow Conservatory - he finished conservatory in the class of Igoumnov (very famous Russian professor). His first reaction was the same. He said ĎYou are stupid. The boy must run and jump, not studyí. But when I asked if he had a piano at home, and he said that he had, and I came and I played, I remember it was Beethoven Sonata number 20. I played it of course without score because I had learned it by ear. Then he changed his mind and he started to study with me a little bit. I did that for slightly more than a year. Then at the age of seven I went to the Central Music School. It was his advice, of course. It was simply the best you could have at that time - best in the world. So I was lucky I was in Moscow.

The Central Music School is a school with total education. Normal education and professional musical in the one building. So every day you have one hour more than normal children. And of course you donít pay for it. The best teachers were there. So I started to study at the Central Music School from my first school year, when I was seven. And for five and a half years I studied with Tatiana Kestner. She was a pupil of Alexander Goldenweiser. He actually founded this Central Music School in 1933 or Ď32. And after her death I studied with Tatiana Nikolaeva. She was 20 years younger than Tatiana Kestner but they were very good friends and both had been pupils of Alexander Goldenweiser.

 

Q : Could you tell us about your first meeting with Nikolaeva ? How did you meet her ? Do you remember the first time ?

I think the first time - if I am not wrong - I met her after a concert, but I am not so sure. The first time she could listen to my playing, I was in the second school-year. I was eight or nine. She came to the class of Tatiana Kestner, as she did very often, and she heard my playing. Or it might have been in Kestnerís apartment....

That time, I remember, I asked her to play Bachís Toccata and Fugue for Organ in D minor. It was her transcription for piano, and she just did it for me and Tatiana Kestner Ė and I think my mother was there. I was very surprised how such a great person just did what I asked. And since that moment, she came very frequently to Kestnerís class. (I think she also did it before.) After the death of Tatiana in Ď85, there was no question of me choosing a teacher. Also Nikolaeva was not in Moscow. I think she came only one month because she had a tour. After that I studied with Nikolaeva nine years. That was of course the greatest experience for me in terms of communication with another musician: communication as a person, as a musician, as teacher and pupil, as colleagues... I  would need two or three hours to talk about it.

 

Q : Letís go now to the recording youíre just completing these days. How important would you say are Chopinís Etudes in the piano repertoire? At least in your repertoire.  What is the importance and originality of this work for you?

Now I think, there are no more important works for piano than Chopinís Etudes. I think, at that time, his music went over peopleís heads, I am sure. For me it is not very clear how Chopin could play some of his own etudes with his not-very-big hands. Really, I think his contemporaries would have been very, very surprised. And as with everything in the world, if you try to do something which seems beyond what is possible, then you really reach something!

So for me, sometimes it seems to help to believe that you can do it. You can do it if you believe in yourself. What I think is, with this cycle of 24 or 27 etudes - actually itís not a cycle, itís the opposite of the 24 Preludes. The 24 Preludes have direction from the first to the last one. The Etudes donít have that. Itís just a book, an anthology of piano technique, and also of piano images. And itís very interesting how very simple, very formal ideas can make  real pictures. Only Rachmaninov called his etudes, Etudes-tableaux, but I think the Chopin Etudes are of course Etudes tableaux. No one etude resembles another. They all have different technical problems or musical images. So the main thing is to show how different the etudes are. Every etude has its own meaning. And it doesnít matter if you play only one etude or you play the complete set.

So, for myself, I canít think of any pieces more difficult - not technically - I think they are just the most difficult pieces. I know many people who have told me that they can play this one or that one very easily, but that they cannot play other ones just because of their hands. So the problems are so different. And for every pianist I can tell which Etude will be simple and natural for him, and which will be a real problem. Itís the same for everybody. Of course many have played all twenty-four, for example, but I can also say that this Etude is much more difficult for him than that one. This is very unusual for Chopin. Because I think Chopin normally wrote unbelievably convenient lines, pianistically speaking, for his own hands and so without problems. And every etude is a problem. Of course, if you hear in the recording or in the concert that there is a problem, then it isÖ very bad ! So the technical problem must become an image or a picture. That way you donít hear the work and the problem. Thereís one principal idea for every etude. But of course the imagination for each etude must be very different.

 

Q : So itís quite a challenge. And itís your first CD with Erato, to record the whole set of the etudes. Why did you choose this programme to begin with ?

There is a wordÖ 'hazard' ?

 

Q: Chance, you mean?

MmmÖ like, if you play a game, and you become just, obsessed ...

I remember there were some points in my life, like when Tatiana Nikolaeva told me once that maybe I should play - in a month - Rachmaninov 3 in Scotland. I had never studied this concerto. And I decided that I should study it in three days and then play it on the fourth day, by heart, in her class. And I did it. This was one of my records. Itís not so easy in three days to know the whole piece. I played it with Tatiana, so actually she didnít believe that I hadnít practiced before.

The other time was after I had an accident when I broke my foot and part of my back, and I didnít play for almost a half-year. Then when I started to play again, it was very difficult for me, very difficult to play on the stage. So I decided to play in less than half a year in the Tchaikovsky Competition in order to force myself back to good form again. And I think that with Chopin Etudes itís a little bit like thisÖthat I want to do more than it seems that I can. So itís like a game. Thatís one reason, of course.

The other reason is that I am sure, I believe, that I have quite a wide musical dictionary. And the Chopin Etudes - I already said this - are very different from each other in their images and also in their technical problems. I think that I am a person with many different pictures and different ideas inside me, and also my hands can do different things. For example, you must play many of the etudes piano, but one of them must be leggerissimo, another one must be legatissimo. And it must be very different, and I hope I can do it.

Because a pianist is a human he usually has some preferences. Of course I do too. But there were some pianists who could really do everything. For example, Michelangeli had a very small repertoire, but he never repeated himself. He never made a stamp. So for me thereís a big, big difference between, for example, Michelangeli and Glenn Gould. They were both unbelievable perfectionists, but Gould always looked at music through his own window, his own very interesting window - with some colours in the glass - but the same for Bach, Beethoven,  everything. Michelangeli always looked from the music:  every piece and composer was so different...they are different worlds. This is my dream. Of course, nobody can reach perfection. Some of Michelangeliís top pointsÖyou cannot be better, really. Itís very sad for us - for pianists - but I try to be and to become very different. So I must be a different person if I play a different piece. Especially if I play different composers, thereís no question : I should forget myself and become a new person; another.

 

Q : What kind of person are you during a recording ? A different person from the one who plays in concerts ?

Oh, of course, itís a different process. So in a concert, especially if you play the whole opus of Etudes, or all twenty-four, this is the problem. Because if you play it, it is a cycle. But, in a musical sense it is not. And so, in a concert you have some preferences in the direction, you have some more musical emphasis and ideas on certain etudes - where the high points are, which are the intermezzos . And in a recording I think I can try to treat every etude as if ĎChopin wrote only this oneí, without thinking about others. So this is the difference. Recording allows you to do this. You can repeat the piece several times and slowly come into the world of that particular etude. And I am sure that almost always your second or third version of an etude is better than the first - almost always. Because you get ever closer to the world of that etude. So itís very different.

If you play concerts you always remember what went before and what will come after; this is the problem. Of course, itís much more interesting as a challenge, a game, to play it in concert. But in a musical sense, I think recordings are preferable in some respects. Itís very different to play an etude in a concert than to play it in a recording. Maybe there are some works where there is not so much difference whether you play them in concert or in a recording.

 

Q: Can you tell us about your future projects and your expectations in working with Erato ?

Now there is much that I would like to do. Very different things. Anyhow, I will do a Russian CD. Maybe a mixed CD, with perhaps less-famous but very beautiful pieces. Maybe it will be Rachmaninov Preludes or Moments Musicaux. But there are other things, of course. I would like to record Sonatas and Fantasias by Mozart. Maybe I would like to make a Schubert CD. Scriabin, Schumann... There is a lot I would like to do. But of course itís a collaboration. I understand that. And we will discuss it with Erato. Hopefully we will be satisfied with the next repertoire.

 

Q:  And what do you expect yourself, from the record company youíll be working with ?

You know... I expect the principal thing, in the first place, must stand the musical and cultural quality. And in second place - maybe much lower - the profit, how many CDís will sell. And they can be connected but they are not always the same. So I would like for the recording company not to bother me with ideas of how things can be sold well or not well.

 

Q : To finish on a lighter note, you are sitting in front of a chess board. Since you are a Russian, do you play chess yourself?

Yes, I play chess. When you are sixteen or seventeen, just before twenty, you have so many interests in life. I was like that. Now I cannot say that I am interested in everything. But I still have a great interest in chess. I have some partners in Russia. Just two days before I left Moscow for Paris, I played in a chess tournament with my friend, Glassnitiss, and two master candidatesÖ thatís a Russian expression for professional chess players. And I came second, and if I had won the last match I could have been first. So itís one of my hobbies.

 

Q: Do you have many hobbies? Can you find time for them?

MmmmÖalways difficult. But itís always possible to find time. You can use the time when youíre in a plane to read or listen to music. But sometimes Iím very sad when I think that when I was fifteen or sixteen, I could stay at home and listen to music about eight, nine hours a day. I remember it was a time when I could listen to the Bruckner symphonies really that much, for that long - Sibelius, Carl NielsenÖthis is impossible for me now.  But now, I record Chopin Etudes !

 

Q: Are you a record collector yourself?

I would not say a collector. I have a few hundred at home. My piano collection is not so fantastic, but symphonic music and string quartets, I have rather a lot.


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