Lugansky by the light of Prokofiev

From La Lettre du Musicien, 2003-2004: Piano No. 17
Interview by Yutha Tep
Translated from the original French by Valour

Nikolai Lugansky

While the Russian pianist's gods are Pushkin, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev - who is for him, "a symbol of light, of rhythm and of life" -  he also has high regard for French music, most of all Ravel.

In attempting to evoke the classicism of Nikolai Lugansky, the high musical quality of his interpretations  - so high that some reproach him for a certain neutrality, one would almost tend to forget that he is above all, a Russian pianist.  But this is all well and good in Rachmaninov or Prokofiev - with the great virtuosity that these composers require (and which our pianist possesses to the ultimate degree) -  which constitutes the core of his repertoire. Lugansky definitely wants to be the ambassador of his musical heritage and hardly feels any need to mince words when speaking of his beloved Rachmaninov.  "Rachmaninov  is Russian music, not only at the expressive level, but also from a formal point of view. It is no accident if he also makes use of the Orthodox heritage or popular songs in his vocal works. I feel totally Russian when I play it - there is no question. Like Anton Rubinstein, he pokes a little fun at theoretical debates. His music is very traditional - despite its exceptional dramatic qualities - very tonal, but having such force that it leaves little room for discussion. It's not like many contemporary works on which one could say many things, but which - in my opinion - are devoid of musical meaning. Maybe it's a refusal to simply surrender to this emotional torrent which causes certain critics to be reticent. But I understand that one can be afraid of one's emotions."

An incredible transparency of sound

But Rachmaninov is not alone: the other idols of Nikolaļ Lugansky are Pushkin and Prokofiev." I don 't see more than  three or four names in Russian culture who carry within them such sunlight ! In music, there is maybe also Glinka, but he is very different. Prokofiev, for a Russian, is a symbol of light, of rhythm and of life, even though he wrote works like The Angel of Fire. When one hears it, one understands that life is stronger than death." .

This love of life and of the sun explains, to some extent, the  incredible sonorous transparency of this pianist, and also some of his future repertoire choices, French music first of all. "For French music it's simply that I did not really have the time." he confesses. "And then people mainly ask me for Russian music. I have played just about all the Russian concertos."  Despite that,  Lugansky has not forgotten the French musical heritage. "For sure there are some French works that I have known for a long time, like Gaspard de la Nuit, and there are others that are a bit new for me - works to which I need to get more accustomed.  But there is no one universal recipe for approaching French repertoire. Each work is different." Any particular wishes ? "I have never played Messiaen, I know his Regards, but I would like very much to know him better. It is a music which demands tremendous calm if one wants to get inside it, and which demands tremendous effort when one plays it without the score."  And to express some regrets: "You know, in Russia, one doesn't play that much French music, except perhaps Ravel. That said, Russians know the most famous pages anyway. But certain composers still remain infrequently played, like Milhaud."

Ravel embodies the music of the sun

But his eyes are gleaming with a contagious appetite when he speaks of his plans: "I will soon approach the Concerto in G of Ravel and some small works of Debussy. I will play the Concerto in G with Valery Gergiev; I first want to polish it in Russia before tackling it abroad. It's a great pleasure to play this music. It doesn't present me with great technical difficulties, but it is necessary to keep track of the multiplicity of ideas which are not necessarily all French. And above all  there are very profound elements to single out from the main scheme. For me, Ravel also embodies the music of the sun. It's not so different, for example, from the Third Concerto of Prokofiev."

The Nikolai Lugansky Website