Rachmaninov is the most Russian of all Russians
An interview with the pianist Nikolai Lugansky

From Amazon.de, March 2003
Written by Erika Habenicht,
Translated from the the original German by D. Schoenenberger
Edited by Valour

His career never skyrocketed, and he was never a child prodigy. Instead, he worked his way up with consistent achievements. The press is enthusiastic about his colossal technique and his sensitive playing which always emphasizes the music and not the musician. Nikolai Lugansky is Russian, body and soul. That is why it is important for him that both his children grow up in Russia. They should be able to speak his mother tongue. With his latest Rachmaninov CD, the winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition proves again to be one of the most important young representatives of the Russian tradition.

Amazon.de: You recently recorded the popular Third Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninov with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo, and the lesser known First Concerto as well. How was the choice made?

Nikolai Lugansky: For me personally, this First Concerto is one of the most beautiful pieces of all, especially because it is a mixture of the melodic language of the 17-year old Rachmaninov and the fantastic pianistic perfection and harmonic language of late Rachmaninov. He wrote it in his student days and revised it 27 years later as a mature composer. One reason that the First Concerto is so rarely performed is – in my opinion – that the teamwork between pianist and orchestra is very difficult. The finale is incredibly difficult to play together, but it is wonderful, beautiful music.

Amazon.de: Rachmaninov was not showered with compliments by critics in his lifetime. Remarks such as "salon music“ and "overblown style“ were applied to his music.

Nikolai Lugansky: The problem was the time in which Rachmaninov lived. That was when the late Romantic style was already considered old-fashioned. At the beginning of the 20th century there was already a Stravinsky, a Bartok. Obviously, Rachmaninov appeared very old-fashioned next to these composers, with his conservative taste, his love for melody and tonal harmonic language. But the public always loved his music; it goes immediately from the heart, to the heart. Maybe that was a cause for the scepticism of critics: One could not understand what this was. Twelve-tone music was already being composed, and along comes Rachmaninov with beautiful melodies, and what is more, the public loves it!

Amazon.de: You have been strongly focusing on Rachmaninov as well as Chopin. What is it about this music that fascinates you?

Nikolai Lugansky: Rachmaninov is the most Russian of all Russians. Particularly with his melodic language which is very deep. It is based on medieval orthodox melodies. Popular motifs such as the first theme of the Third Concerto are closely connected to the orthodox chants of the Middle Age. Tchaikovsky sometimes cited such elements, but they were not his world. With Rachmaninov, they are an essential component of his language. This is a completely different foundation than a protestant chorus for example. One has to understand completely different forms and melodic lines.

As with many other Russian pianists, you got the standard education at the Moscow Conservatory and then you won the Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of 22. Did your parents plan this career for you?

Nikolai Lugansky: None of my family members were musicians. My mother is a chemist, my father a physicist. He believed that a musical education involved too much force because the parents must make their children practice. He did not want this for me. When I was 5 years old he bought a toy piano with one-and-a-half octaves, and there was on the score a Soviet melody that we had been practising. When he tried to play it I sometimes called to him from another room to play an A-sharp and not an A. So he discovered to his surprise that I had perfect pitch. He sent me to the Central Music School in Moscow where I got the best possible education. You get both academic and musical education and no time is wasted. Obviously, there is a lot of competition, which is not agreeable, but it is still better to meet it at the age of seven than to meet it for the first time at the age of 20. You perform and you listen to others - this is very important. I did not see any other way to become a pianist (since I had no musicians in my family), so I had to play at competitions. The first ones were not important as such, but they greatly improved me. The Tchaikovsky Competition is an unpleasant memory because it was very stressful. It is not a joy if you fear it. After this success I never wanted to do something like that again.

Amazon.de: Does a competition victory guarantee invitations everywhere?

Nikolai Lugansky: By 1994 this competition was no longer as important as it used to be. I cannot say that my life changed completely. For me, the bigger event was in France in 1999. That is the country where I launched my career with a concert in the Musee du Louvre, and where I was offered a recording contract.

Amazon.de: You are just 30 years old but you have already collaborated with experienced conductors such as Mikhail Pletnev, Riccardo Chailly and Kent Nagano. Were you not intimidated at first?

Nikolai Lugansky: One is a bit intimidated by great conductors. My first big tour was with Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio. I quickly learned that it is better to play with renowned conductors. It was very enjoyable to play with Kent Nagano and Riccardo Chailly. I have played often with Pletnev. That’s been great. Since he is a pianist himself he knows the repertoire like nobody else. Together with him, I had the feeling of being able to do everything I wanted.

Amazon.de: What do you want to achieve with an interpretation? When comparing your interpretations with original Rachmaninov recordings, one concludes that your style is completely different. Your records sound well-balanced, straight and brilliant.

Nikolai Lugansky: I have neither the hands of Rachmaninov nor his compositional genius. There is no sense in trying to copy someone. I never want to do something in exactly the same or the opposite way to somebody else. I think, this is not a musical idea. In my opinion this is not important. When you love someone you do not think, this relationship is completely different from, or similar to, another one. It is always unique. Therefore, every interpretation is unique. People trying to show something special can be interesting. But some people play Mozart or Rachmaninov and stamp their own style on it, as if to say: “I’m the one who’s playing now.” It is very easy to play so that someone says “Whoah, only Lugansky does this trick.” One can easily invent something; it is not hard work. My dream is to become identical with a certain style. That means I have to be another person when playing Rachmaninov than when playing Mozart.

Being a professional pianist is not always easy: one struggles with stage-fright, with oneself, or just with a bad piano. What drives you?

Nikolai Lugansky: Sometimes one is in fear. Sometimes you believe your hands cannot work. It helps me that I only play music that I love. You can sacrifice your life for it. This music is always sounding in me, when I sleep or eat. Of course it sounds different inside of me and I try to transfer it into reality. Unfortunately this is an intention that will not work 100 per cent of the time. That is why a piano concert is an adventure for me, but this is my job as a pianist.

Read this interview in German

The Nikolai Lugansky Web Site