Interview with Nikolai Lugansky

Questions and answers published by on 22 March 2002
Translated from the original French by Valour

Nikolai Lugansky loves Chopin and proves it. After the Etudes he turns to the cycle of Preludes and pulls off a revolutionary interpretation. This ingenious pianist moves confidently within the court of the greats.

So often misused, the term "genius" once again finds its full meaning with Nikolai Lugansky. The pianist is young but has an astounding maturity, approaching music from within, never imposing upon it with his technique, however phenomenal. This pupil of the prestigious Tatiana Nikolaeva attains, with his interpretation of the Preludes of Chopin, an astonishing level of musical intelligence. Explanations are given in this interview with Nikolai Lugansky. : This is your second recording of Chopin for Erato. What is your bond with this composer ?

NL : There are very few compositions written for piano which are as ingenious. It's the dream of a pianist. Chopin is number one for the piano, along with Rachmaninov. There is also Schumann, but he did not reach the perfection of Chopin. But Chopin is difficult - each note is very precious - especially the cycle of Preludes which represents the most difficult of Chopin's music ... : You did, however, record the Etudes which were already not easy ...

NL : That's true, but the Etudes did not make up a cycle. They are separate pieces, like the Mazurkas or the Nocturnes. The cycle of Preludes possesses within itself drama and developments, and certain Preludes present great technical difficulties. The whole is connected, but each piece has its own identity, its own character, while offering at the same time very big contrasts within a short space of time.  It goes very quickly. But I also love the Ballades. The Ballade No. 4,  which I play on the album, is for me the greatest piece that Chopin ever wrote. It's my favourite, anyway. : Critical opinion is unanimous on one point: your technique never detracts from the interpretation as is so often the case with young pianists. Thus you have shown proof of great maturity.

NL : Technique doesn't exist by itself. It is there to be used and it serves to express our musical image. There are pianists who have hands that are stronger and larger, but who do not have imagination. Just as there are pianists with a great imagination but not the hands, the fingers. Some have incredible technical capabilities, but in the end, they don't know how to use it, because they don't have inner music. As for me, I hope to bring technique and inner music together in harmony. But this is not always possible ! I don't always manage it every time. Sometimes the music demands such a technique that it is really necessary to give it all you have. I am thinking of certain pieces of Liszt, of Rachmaninov, or of Chopin. I know a great pianist who told me that she cannot play the Etude No.2 because her hands are not big enough. But that is not very important, in the end. : Do you feel you have progress to make ?

NL : I don't know. I think that I could discover new things, while losing some things in the process. I believe in development, but not in progress : How would you describe the teaching of your famous professor, Tatiana Nikolaeva ?

NL :  I was her student for nine years, but I knew her since I was eight years old. She was a very Russian pianist with a very singing tone, very calm, but she did not restrict herself to the standard repertoire of the Russian school which played principally Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Rachmaninov. Tatiana played the works of these composers but her base was Bach. All the works of Bach for keyboard, but also Shostakovich, Prokofiev .... It was very interesting, such a "Russian" pianist, with this unusual repertoire....But I would say that her most important teaching was that there is music which is living and music which is dead. She made us listen to the interpretations of legendary musicians, while saying to us : "You see, this is well-played, but it is dead. There is not a single note which is living." Someone should write a book about her life, or make a film. : In your view, what are the things that a good pianist should not do ?

NL : There are pianists who express themselves. For example Glenn Gould played always in the same way, which was always his own way, rather than that of the composer. He saw music through his window, always in the same light. This can be interesting, and there are some people who love it. But that is not my conception. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, fantastic - a perfectionist and very strange - found for each piece a different emotion. He placed himself at the service of a work, instead of putting the work at his service. For each piece, he found a new life. This is an approach that I prefer over that of Glenn Gould, who, for me, lacks "naturalness". But this is only my opinion, my personal taste. : Which pianists move you the most ?

NL :Michelangeli, Rachmaninov, Radu Lupu. Sviatoslav Richter as well .... : Which are the works that fascinate you the most, those that are always with you ?

NL : Certain works have kept me company in difficult or joyful moments. I am thinking especially of the Seventh Symphony of Sibelius, of The Bells of Rachmaninov, and of course his Third Symphony which is not very popular [he laughs]. That's for the twentieth century. Otherwise Wagner's Twilight of the Gods, the Ninth Symphony of Bruckner. But you know, if you are in a very profound depression and you listen to the string quartets or quintets of Mozart, you understand the purpose of living ....

Read this interview in French

The Nikolai Lugansky Web Site