The Passion According to Lugansky

From, 10 January 2004
Written by Gerrard Mannoni
Translated from the original French by Valour


It has often been written that the Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky is one of those who makes us rediscover the most familiar works. His recital at Theatre des Champs-Elysees, the total triumph that it was, has nevertheless disturbed more than one listener, and the controversies gathered great speed right from the beginning.

After an unarguably exemplary reading of Beethoven's Sonata No. 22 in F major op. 54, so unusual in its form and difficult to enhance, the young Russian pianist then gave us an Appassionata that was absolutely  fascinating but far from the beaten paths. Obviously, for Lugansky, passion comes with prudence, wisdom, reflection, step by step. It is measured, it builds itself up calmly despite some half-hearted thrusts quickly contained, before letting itself go to into frenzied overflow, fulgurating, as hot as a lava flow in the making.

The notes were then rolled off at dizzying speed, almost superhuman, the chords converge into a tropical storm - but not to such an extent that absolute clarity is ever compromised. Pianistically, this is in the realm of genius. So then, is he too intellectual to make us wait for the second part of the last movement to justify its name ? Certainly not, if one refers to the Beethovenian writing without letting oneself be too quickly fired-up by the latent emotion behind the notes.

The entire beginning of the work is indeed made of learnedly wrought contrasts - measured, progressive - of which it is not at all necessary to force the pathos. The Pathetique sonata, justly, poses from the first, with its first chords, a clear drama. One enters fully immersed in tragedy. Here, everything begins with interrogation, hesitation, advancing prudently towards a world of passion which does not let one go until the end. A bit like the Moonlight Sonata with its disposition which begins so peacefully, but which culminates by boiling tumultuously. For many listeners, the Appassionata of Lugansky remains therefore a fabulous moment in piano music, and a true rediscovery of the work.

After Eight Etudes op. 8 of Scriabin - much more reassuring for everyone - Lugansky attacked Prokofiev's Sonata No. 6, this time in a way that rallied all the votes. With an unsettling lucidity, the young Russian revealed the rhythms and the strong, complicated structures in all their truth and their beauty, with - as if it were necessary to remind ourselves - a technique always just as incredible, but which never resorts to brute force, except in the power of the final Vivace. Lugansky, perfect example of the Russian school that he is, neither brings to mind a Richter nor a Kissin. He approaches the instrument more gently, a good disciple of the late, great Tatiana Nikolayeva, still more acclaimed for her interpretations of Bach that of the great Romantic repertoire.

Lugansky, Kissin, Volodos, the generation of Russians in their thirties is decidedly an exceptional vintage.

The Nikolai Lugansky Web Site