Music from the Heart

From Diapason February 2001
Interview by Alain Cochard
Translated from the original French by Valour and S. Kol

After a complete traversal of the Chopin Etudes which made a big splash, Nikolai Lugansky continues his path at Erato with a Rachmaninov programme.

A discreet artist, apparently timid - a great romantic in reality - Nikolai Lugansky has always been fascinated by Rachmaninov. The Russian composer, today so close to his heart, was not, however, his first musical discovery.


NL: First there was Chopin and Beethoven, but at a very young age, I remember that I was impressed by the Piano Concerto No.2 and by certain Preludes. I tried to play this music, but it was not made for the hands of a child... I was a pupil of Tatiana Kestner when, a little later, I worked on my first pieces by Rachmaninov: two Etudes-Tableaux (Opus 33 No 3 and 39 No 2). These were not easy things. Certainly I felt more at ease in the transcription by Rachmaninov of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I began at the same time.

AC: Did you discover the recordings of Rachmaninov at the same time ?

NL: No, curiously, people tend to know the pianist after his music. This was something that came a bit later.

AC: Did this discovery lead you to re-think your approach to the piano ?

NL: Not at the time. I was certainly very impressed, yet I was still too young to accept this playing. I was between ten and twelve years old and the music of Rachmaninov was for me infinitely more comprehensible than his playing. 

AC: Today, where do you place Rachmaninov as a pianist?

NL: He was the greatest of all time. His style was incredible. I was fascinated by his ability to play espressivo no matter what the tempo. In all situations the expression and the timbre were there. I have never heard this from anyone else. I remember discovering Rachmaninovís Concerto No 4 : I fell in love with the work as well as the interpretation and then, much later, I heard the recording of Michelangeli, which I preferred for a while. The two versions are exceptional. However, I admit that today my preference lies with that of the composer which I find more warm and more Ö human.

AC: You worked for several years with Tatiana Nikolayeva. What was it in her teaching that influenced your manner of interpreting Rachmaninov ?

NL: When I was about fourteen or fifteen, Nikolayeva suggested that I throw myself into the Etudes-Tableaux. This was very ambitious, but everything seems easy at that age. In less than two months, I owned them all. My teacher later told me that she never expected that I would assimilate these works so quickly! In her teaching, Nikolayeva insisted strongly on the expressive dimension of the music. There are many differences between Rachmaninov and Chopin for example . In the beginning, that was not always easy for me to get used to. The writing of the Russian composer is highly charged. It interlaces several melodic lines and one must have a very clear understanding of this complexity to reproduce that with a great, full sound. The musical phrasing of Rachmaninov presents a very personal character; generally speaking, it commences with a great emotional influx and then a diminuendo. In 1990, Tatiana Nikolayeva encouraged me to enter the Rachmaninov Competition. I was of course a bit young for such a major program. I obtained the second prize. Thatís not so bad, at seventeen Ö

AC: All the evidence shows that Rachmaninov is part of your pantheon of composers. Who are the four others that you would add there ?

NL: To be frank, I normally name my four favourite composers: Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Rachmaninov. You ask me to name a fifth ... Difficult...It all depends on the time ...I would say...Sibelius.

AC: He did not write many exciting works for the piano...

NL: I am a pianist, but also a listener, and the latter is not haunted by piano music. I appreciate enormously Bruckner, Richard Strauss or Sibelius. Sibelius is, to some extent, close to Rachmaninov. They both belong to the twentieth century but their music comes from the heart. And if you ask me which work of Rachmaninov I like to listen to at this moment, I hover between The Bells and Symphony No. 3. These are two pieces that bring me to tears. The Symphony No. 3 does not have the popularity of the Second Symphony or the Symphonic Dances, but I have a passion for this work.

AC: You just recorded Rachmaninov after having offered the 24 Etudes of Chopin. Rachmaninov venerated the music of the Polish composer. Do you find much of Chopin's influence in Rachmaninov's music ?

NL: First of all, I want to remember that my recording career began several years ago with works of Rachmaninov which I had recorded for Vanguard Classics. The influence of Chopin on Rachmaninov was very strong - much more important than that of Liszt for example. Rachmaninov played a great deal of Chopin. Probably it is in the Preludes that the influence of Chopin is most strongly felt, while at the same time there is a nature entirely distinct from that of Chopin. The music of Rachmaninov is nearer to Chopin than his pianistic technique. Yet the recording of the Funeral March Sonata by Rachmaninov remains something totally unique, inimitable. He has really forever put his stamp on this work. Rachmaninov had phenomenal technical means, huge hands - they should be in the Guiness Book of World Records. The execution of his concertos was, for him, no problem at all.

AC: There are those who accuse him of having only composed "pianist's music"...

NL:  Debussy said that music should be "timid". It is true that sometimes Rachmaninov's music disturbs certain listeners because of the enormous emotional potential that it liberates. His music is a vector of emotion above all. When you listen to the Concerto No. 2, those wonderful melodies, an immense force takes possession of you, so that you forget an infinite number of things of which you become aware when you study the piece closely. The majority of people have no idea, for example, of the importance of elements present in the introductory measures for the rest of the work.

AC: For your new Rachmaninov CD you have chosen to combine the Preludes Op.3 No.2 and Op.23 with the Moments musicaux Op. 16, rather than the Preludes Op. 32. Why ?

NL: The Preludes of Rachmaninov do not form a cycle. To me, it seemed interesting to contrast the writing of the Moments musicaux, a youthful work with a distinct style, no doubt, and the more traditional fare of the Preludes Op.23, written after the period of creative impotence caused by the failure of the Symphony No 1. One then encounters more complex writing, much more polyphonic. The craft of the composer was affirmed and there, one finds traces of the crisis he had just been through.

AC: And after Rachmaninov ?

NL: I am thinking of recording some Schubert or Schumann. I am happy about this collaboration with Erato which allows me to give the best of myself in the greatest pages of piano literature. I would like also to record some lesser-known things: Medtner and also certain works of Sibelius. But my immediate priority rests with the major repertoire.

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