Eminent Teachers

From Gramophone, June 1996
Written by Harriet Smith

Nikolai Lugansky is fast making a name for himself in the piano world.

When I first met twenty-three year old Nikolai Lugansky in the foyer of his London hotel he was clutching a large envelope addressed to the Leeds Competition. I expressed surprise that as first winner of the most recent Tschaikovsky competition he still felt it was necessary. “Oh no,” he assured me, ending the confusion, “ this is not for me, it’s for a friend. I don’t need to do the Leeds now.” The conservatoire method, and particularly that in Russia, tends to be regarded as competition-obsessed, but Lugansky, perhaps because he has been through the system, does not share that view. “Competitions have no worth on their own - they’re only useful to get concert engagements and in turn make recordings. I have always found them an unpleasant experience - I used to get so nervous before them that I felt physically ill. Now I have enough concerts and things are going well, so I have no need of them.”

Lugansky owes much of his sanguine outlook on his chosen profession to Tatyana Nikolayeva, with whom he studied for nine years, from the age of twelve. “The biggest difference between Nikolayeva and most of the professors at the Moscow Conservatory was her individuality; she was an extraordinary person. When I think of her, I think of Nielsen’s Inextinguishable - that’s what she was. So many things changed in Russia during her lifetime, but she had the most tremendous spirit. She was someone who really loved life - she was everywhere, giving recitals, concertos, sitting on juries, giving masterclasses, and of course teaching. To study with her was an unusual experience in that she was very rarely in Moscow; sometimes many weeks would pass between lessons. For me that was a good discipline - to think, study, and work alone - it was a good training for being a pianist.”

Lugansky recalls a favourite anecdote. “I remember once she was in Moscow between two very important tours, teaching all the time - at the conservatoire and also at home. One day I was the last to go to her house and she taught until nine or ten in the evening. And when I got up to leave she said “Very good. Now I can practice - very quietly.”

Nikolayeva may have been best known in this country for her Shostakovich and Bach, but her repertoire was large and wide-ranging. In a recent recital at London’s Wigmore Hall Lugansky programmed Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Scriabin. Interestingly it as in the Beethoven (Op. 31 No. 2) that her influence on his playing was most pronounced: full-blooded, powerful, rigorously contrapuntal and yet strikingly imaginative. Had Nikolayeva’s influence, I wonder, extended to Lugansky’s choice of repertoire? “I have done some of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and his first piano concerto, but I knew her for nine years and in my mind I most associate her with many more things than this  - perhaps most of all with Bach. I have heard her do the complete 48 several times, and the Goldbergs, and many, many other works.”And did he, I naively asked, also play Bach? “Oh yes, in fact I played in the Leipzig Bach Competition where I won Second Prize.”

Not bad for a sixteen year old. He continues “I’ve played quite a lot of Bach, but I think it’s very difficult to create a mixed programme - he works best on his own.”

So far in the recording studio Lugansky has tended to concentrate on Russian repertoire – two discs of Rachmaninov’s piano works (The Etudes-Tableaux on one, the 2nd Sonata and shorter pieces on the other) were warmly greeted last year. Indeed Le Monde de la Musique, hedging their bets somewhat, suggested that Lugansky was the successor to Horowitz, Richter and Gilels. His recording of the Etudes Symphoniques has also been released on Vanguard. His most recent project however has been more Rachmaninov  - the Third and Fourth Concertos. “If I record a work, that means I have something to say, it’s something I feel strongly about; after all, you have to be able to live with the results!” Surely though, he is treading a dangerously well-worn path, particularly with the endlessly recorded Third Concerto ? “If I do something I have to forget about all the earlier, great recordings. Everything I need is there in the score, even if it takes a lifetime’s study.” In fact, Lugansky admitted that initially it took him a mere three days to learn the Third Concerto. “On the fourth day I played it by heart. But after that I had to study it for many months before I felt comfortable with it. It’s not the notes that take the time, it’s the spirit, the emotion of a piece.” He invokes the name of his god - Michelangeli, whom he admires perhaps more than any other recording artist. “He made very few recordings, he played many things from a wide range of repertoire. But he didn’t do things complete just for the sake of it." Of course Michelangeli’s recording of Rachmaninov’s Fourth Concerto is one of the greatest piano recordings ever made - had this been an hindrance to his own recording ?

“I love it, and know it very well, but I had to forget about it when I made my own recording.”

Lugansky in fact loves listening to records, but only for relaxation. “Now I like to hear lots of piano music, but four or five years ago I preferred symphonic music and string quartets. Leider. All of these give me great pleasure. Great music is great music, whatever the medium.”

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