Nikolai Lugansky - A Touch of the Divine

From Le Monde, 18 March 2002
Written by Marie-Aude Roux
Translated from the original French by Valour

The Russian pianist, a virtuoso discovered in France in 1997, illuminates Chopin on CD and gives a recital at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees.

A tall young blond gentleman with regular features, his hair parted mathematically (one third, two thirds) to one side. He has the awkwardness of a young son as well as the silky politeness of the ideal son-in-law. At first glance, nothing unusual or remarkable about the pianist Nikolai Lugansky. Except, perhaps, for the look in his eyes, those blue eyes reminiscent of a sky full of rapidly drifting clouds. A look that comes and goes, a look which you can't get hold of, somewhat fleeting and somewhat worried. The look of "The Extraordinary Foreigner".

In the air of this spring evening, at the Place du Pantheon, floats the perfume of these great women - Colette, 
Curie, Beauvoir... - whose pictures remain plastered onto the metal grillwork of this burial place of great men in celebration of "Women's Day". Nikolai Lugansky arrives, in fact, escorted by a charming squadron - his wife, his female agent, his female press agent, as well as the lady responsible for press relations for Warner Classics, his record company. "The flight from Moscow was delayed ... the conveyer belt delivering luggage was blocked for a long time, and then there were the traffic jams." One senses that he would like to cancel everything, that only his infinite delicacy and extreme correctness prevent him from even suggesting it. He sits down, looking like a doe held by the collar, his large pale hands placed carefully in front of him, a small bandage on his left index finger. We agree that we shall have to be brief, to cut things short. Because of these hands, in fact, which work such ineffable magic at the piano.

And then no! We are going to put questions to him just has he does with music. From the first to the last note. This animal is tough; he can take it. He possesses, above all, an honesty which is disarming. So serious and straight, so unselfconscious: "I am only a medium between the composer and the listener. It doesn't matter whether I exist or not during the concert. I only play to try to produce one of  those moments which are incomparable with any other. To give the greatest of pleasures, the most precious kind of pleasure." Is it too much to say that since 1997, the year when The Festival at La Roque-d'Antheron first revealed him to us in France, that Nikolai Lugansky has not stopped giving us these pieces of eternity marked by God Himself? That his first recording of the Chopin Etudes in the year 2000 has become, almost from the moment it appeared, a historic recording?

Certainly, the great Tatiana Nikolaeva's favourite pupil (first at the Moscow Central School and then at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory), the one designated by her, just before her death in 1993, as the "pianist of the future", had a debut which was much more modest than that of his contemporary, Evgeny Kissin, who was launched to fame by Karajan fifteen years ago. However, Lugansky was an early starter, as you can hear in the recording made at a public recital given when he was only 13 at the Moscow Conservatory, before he had won several international prizes: the Leipzig Bach Competition in 1988, the Rachmaninoff Competition in 1990, and ultimately the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994. "I gave concerts before I was even conscious of it, then had success in competitions, and that did not change my life. The only question I asked myself was a negative one: "Maybe I am not a musician?"

The Smile of a Chess Player

Rarely could an artist have given an impression of being so centred as a human being, beneath the musical sun, in fact. In the very place where shadow meets light, straight in the line of the great Russian tradition of Heinrich Neuhaus, Emil Gilels or Sviatoslav Richter...not to mention Benno Moiseiwitch or Rachmaninoff himself. 
And yet Lugansky was not born into a musical family;  "A very Soviet story - mother came from Tadjikistan, father lived in the countryside 200 kilometers from Moscow. Both were students in Moscow, where they met". Nikolai Lugansky recalls a detail from his childhood; "The little piano on which my father played popular Soviet songs - one day, I played the melody back to him, to show him that he had played some wrong notes. That is how they discovered that I had perfect pitch".

Ah, but if only it were just his ears! For five years now Lugansky, the musician, has conquered those very ears which Lugansky, the pianist, is bluffing - "In France, people think of Russian pianists as virtuosos of the keyboard, while Russians think of them as virtuosos of expression." Lugansky is pleased with this paradox and gives a quick, but brilliant smile to express his delight. A carnivorous smile of pure intelligence, a smile which lights up everything and yet puts everything in play - technique, musicality, and the meeting of the two. One of those smiles of victory which he brings to his notorious chess matches. Lugansky was seen playing chess for hours on end in a hotel lobby during the Crazy Russian Day in Nantes, last year, taking on three adversaries and beating them all. It's no surprise then, that he has just won the Musicians' Chess Championship in Moscow! "It is a combination of sport, science and art. There you play out tragedies and comedies. Chess is, at the level of man, what music is at the level of the spirit: the absolute proof of the existence of God."

He says all of this so simply, Nikolai Lugansky. Is this why the music from his pianistic altar seems, at times, to come from so far away? Is this why he plays Rachmaninoff the way he does (Rachmaninoff, worshipped equally as composer and pianist), or even moreso, why he plays Chopin the way he does, he who has always loved Chopin, since that moment in his childhood when he discovered a recording of Paderewski? "This was the music of a master", he says. The recording which he has just made of the 24 Preludes also lives up to that expression. We are about to part, and this young man who is so very reserved suddenly bursts with admiration for Radu Lupu, Pletnev, and especially for Nelson Freire, whom he would like to be closer to ("but we don't have the same hands"). When I ask him for some final words, about himself this time, he falls silent once again and reflects: "No words, but maybe..." (a long silence) "a 4th Ballade of Chopin or the Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto would tell you much more about me".

The Nikolai Lugansky Web Site