Meeting with Nikolai Lugansky 

From Journal La Terrasse, 11 March 2003
Interview by Jean Lukas
Translated from the original French by M. Urian
Edited by Valour

Within a few years, this young Russian pianist has established himself on the international piano scene as one of the most respected and impressive musical personalities of his generation.  A worthy successor within a great line of Russian piano giants, today he brings to life a stunning, limpid reading of the Third Concerto of Rachmaninov, which he regards as  “the most beautiful piano concerto ever written.” At the same time, he is playing the work in concert at the invitation of Orchestre de Paris under the direction of the same conductor: Sakari Oramo. 

You have a reputation for being a very hardworking person… 

Nikolai Lugansky : I am not an especially hardworking person, but I try to practice my instrument every day. Very often this is not possible because of my travels… Among the great pianists of today whom I know, the majority work a lot more than me. But of course, when I arrive in a city after a journey, it's not bad thing to find two hours with a piano, to work my fingers … I think that if I compare myself to other pianists I know, I am rather liberal with myself. I allow myself time for not working... 

Could you talk to us about this phenomenon of dependency on the piano? 

Nikolai Lugansky : A feeling of dependency exists, naturally. If I go without playing for ten days, I feel that something is missing. I lose a certain confidence. I know that I will subsequently need to take much more time to do the technical and physical work which will allow me to regain the same mastery of the instrument. There is a very big difference between spending one or two hours a day at the piano, and staying one full day without an access to an instrument. Two hours a day is already enough to preserve one's form. But working on the piano and music are two different things. I could not imagine ten days without music! 

It is simply impossible because music is foremost in your mind… 

Nikolai Lugansky : Of course, music is inside of me... but it's also inside my CD player !  I listen to a lot of music. It's my greatest pleasure in life. And it's not at all connected to my work. I listen to music for the love of it. 

What do you listen to? 

Nikolai Lugansky : First, symphonic music. But also many other things: string quartets, piano music, songs… I want to constantly improve my musical culture . If I listen to music which I don’t understand, I think of it as a chance to work on myself and to listen to it again a second, a third time.... For example, there are two composers from the first half of the twentieth century who are among my favourites: Rachmaninov and Sibelius. The music of Rachmaninov, his concertos in particular, make a strong impression from the first listening. This is not the case with the music of Sibelius, which is not always immediately clear. It is necessary to listen to it several times, and each time you discover things that are new and incredibly beautiful .... It is a great pleasure, but one that results from labour of the spirit, from effort.  If I don’t like a piece of music, my first reflex is to think that it is my fault. Maybe I haven’t listened well…. This happens a lot. And if I really don’t like a work or an interpretation, I think that there is no point in talking about it around me. I try to be positive towards music as towards life. Disliking is not very interesting. And I feel stupid communicating this feeling to others… 

As a listener, what music have you have tried to understand and love without success? 

Nikolai Lugansky : Berlioz. I don’t feel that I belong to this world. Sometimes also Franz Liszt who seems to me, too theatrical. There are also things in Mahler that I love incredibly but others, a lot less…I'm not very fond of the modern music of the twentieth century, either… but I can't love everything! 

You have just recorded the Third Concerto of Rachmaninov. Why this choice? 

Nikolai Lugansky : One could ask that question about every concerto. One must choose carefully… But to reply, let’s say that it is incredibly beautiful music. I have many good memories with this work. For example, it was with this concerto that I won the Tchaïkovsky Competition. It is always a bit senseless to make comparisons but it is maybe the best and the most beautiful of all piano concertos. It is a mountain of the art of piano, a mountain of beauty and music… 

We have the impression of knowing so little about your personality… 

Nikolai Lugansky : I am not an extravert artist who shows what he feels, who explains what he wants to say in his music. To know me, you have to listen to me playing the piano. The music is full of visions and thoughts. I wouldn’t like that my image as an artist be as important. An interesting person necessarily has many things hidden behind what he shows on the outside. There are things that belong to me alone and that I only share with my music. A normal person always has a part that is secret … 

What do you expect from the collaboration with an orchestra conductor? 

Nikolai Lugansky : A balanced collaboration in which no-one takes the upper hand, a collaboration for creating things together.  Each meeting with a conductor is an adventure that should bring a result you had not imagined or hoped for. I am very open to discovering new things. Working with Sakari Oramo was incredibly pleasant. He is a young man ... he is very tolerant and also very knowledgeable about Rachmaninov’s style. 

What do you like and what do you hate in your profession? 

Nikolai Lugansky : There is always an alternation between positive and negative emotions in this soloist's life. What I like the most is being able to place art at the core of my existence, to know other cities, other people, cultures…. What I like less is having to take planes so often, with all that this implies - crossing borders, waiting in check-in lines, and sometimes finding myself in a city without friends or family…. 

The Nikolai Lugansky Web Site