Russian Magic 

From Piano Le Magazine, March/April 2003
Interview by Orianne Nouailhac
Translated by Valour

After two discs dedicated to Chopin and a recording of Preludes and Moments Musicaux by Rachmaninov, Nikolai Lugansky returns to the latter in a reading of two concertos. At thirty, the young Russian virtuoso, launched in France by Rene Martin at La Roque d'Antheron, is a man who is mostly calm and silent. The musician is exuberant and talkative. And since it is necessary to listen to his playing to discover his personality - it was he who said this - we obey him. After reading these lines, go listen to his Chopin Etudes or Rachmaninov Preludes. Read between the lines and listen between the notes. That is where the silences penetrate. That is where the magic does its work.

Paris, a sunny afternoon in January. Nikolai Lugansky arrives from the offices of his agent, not far from here. He had just listened to the master of his Rachmaninov recording - a recording very much anticipated for early March 2003. The evening before, he was seated before the piano on the stage of  the Theatre des Champs Elysees, where he delivered, to several hundred privileged listeners, a recital of Mozart, Beethoven and Rachmaninov.

The Russian pianist responded to our questions over a cup of tea,  in a cozy salon at his hotel.  The blue of his eyes and extreme length of his fingers astonish us once more. Throughout, his discourse was concise, (he doesn't like overstating things) clear and structured.  Nikolai Lugansky kept responding to our questions in the language of Moliere. He has been coming to France once or twice each year since 1997, the year when the Parisian public discovered this monster of the keyboard. Each of his visits is short. A few days at most. And yet, the pianist is constantly enriching his vocabulary.  He absorbs the song of the spoken word, as he fills himself with music.  A phenomenal gift.

You're not too fond of the interview process, are you?

N.L. : I tend to think that, if one speaks too much of one's art, it is as if the music did not sufficiently express what one feels. My medium of expression is music.

And silence is golden ! Anyway, it is often said that the mark of a musician's talent is in the way he interprets silences. What do you think of that?

N.L. : I completely agree.

You have just listened to your recording of Rachmaninov Concertos, which will be released soon by Warner. Are you satisfied with what you have heard?

N.L. : On the whole, yes, I am satisfied, but I still have two or three things to review with the team.

Why had these two concertos, the First and Third, been chosen for a recording?

N.L. : Why not? I have loved this music for many years. And the Third Concerto is a summit, a mountain of the art of the concerto.

How did it come about, the choice of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra?

N.L. : I heard some recordings of this orchestra directed by Simon Rattle and I found them absolutely fantastic. I was therefore delighted to be able to record Rachmaninov with this group, directed by Sakari Oramo. And I was not disappointed. I had already played these two concertos with several orchestras and, sincerely, I had never yet obtained such a result. We recorded the First Concerto at Birmingham's Symphony Hall and the Third in a small hall in the suburbs of Birmingham. I preferred the recording conditions of the First Concerto, not for acoustic reasons, but because of the pianos. That of Symphony Hall was better; the other one was badly prepared.

You are performing this Third Concerto on the 12 and 13 of March with the Orchestre de Paris at Theatre Mogador, under the direction of Sakari Oramo. What do you expect of a conductor?

N.L. : That he be, above all, a musician. It is precisely for this reason that I like working with Mikhail Pletnev, who had been a pianist before conducting. Certain conductors of the old school think that conducting means dominating from the height of their pedestals. They imagine a ladder of rank where you have the conductor, at the top, the various musicians, at the bottom, and the soloist, in the middle. The chief musician should put questions of ability and of position in second place, and be at the service of the music - to have the same title as the other members of the orchestra. Then there is no longer a ladder, but a perfect equality. If the conductor sometimes has to present himself as authoritarian or rigourous, or if he makes compromises - all of this, in service of the music, is perfectly understandable. But if his choices amount to putting the music at the service of himself, then it's not.

Alone with the piano

What do you think of pianists who take up the baton and become conductors? Do you think that you might do the same one day?

N.L. : I think that those pianists are right to do what they feel capable of doing, and if they feel that need. For my part, it would be very difficult because within the expression "music director" there is the word "director". Now, managing, directing ... that's not in my nature. The question of ability is not for me. In an orchestra, you have some strong individuals, some very different characters - and it is necessary to unite every part of  this little world in a coherent and common plan. And then, among these orchestral musicians, you will almost always have a small number who hate the conductor. All of this makes me feel uneasy. 

In brief, you would like to be liked !

N.L. : If you will, but moreover, I have, with my piano, a link that responds to me better. Everything depends on me, on my musical vision. And it's better this way.

When a journalist asked you to talk about yourself, you asked her to listen to your interpretation of a Ballade of Chopin or the Third Concerto of Rachmaninov. What is it that the Third Concerto, played by you, could reveal of your personality?

N.L. : The Third Concerto has nothing to reveal particularly about me. It exists without me, without Martha Argerich, without Emil Gilels. The Third Concerto reveals nothing but itself, and for sure, it enlightens us about Rachmaninov. In fact, I wanted to make a disc of it because none of the previously offered versions seemed to me to be the version. There is, obviously, that of the composer himself which is, as always, incomparable. There is the recording of Zoltan Kocsis, which is inspired by that of Rachmaninov. There is Martha Argerich, who is formidable, Emil Gilels, who is interesting, not forgetting Vladimir Horowitz. But I found that there were still things to say, paths to explore. Going back to the other concertos of Rachmaninov - there already exist some classics, some references. For the First Concerto, I am thinking of Rachmaninov's version, which constitutes one of the high points in the history of piano recordings. The Fourth Concerto is extremely well served by Michelangeli, as by Rachmaninov himself. 

You still live in Moscow. Could you not live elsewhere, far from your roots?

N.L. : It's my town. I was born there and my family is established there. I travel a lot, but I need to return to Moscow.

How many concerts do you give per year?

N.L. : Probably too many - between seventy and eighty.

After your two Chopin discs, then your two Rachmaninov discs, which composer will you now explore?

N.L. : Rachmaninov ! (Laughs.) I intend to record the other two concertos of Rachmaninov, the Second and the Fourth. Then maybe I will do a programme around sonatas of Beethoven. Or a Prokofiev disc. Schumann and Mozart are also very much on my mind.

Do you always play a lot of Bach ?

N.L. : Of course, but less than before. I played it very often for many years, particularly while I was studying with Tatiana Nikolaeva. Today, within the same recital programme, I don't like to mix Bach with music of the 19th century. I consider that Bach represents a particular era; I don't have anything to put together with it, in a recital. I have visited, a little, the universe of Handel, a bit more that of Haydn, and of course Mozart and Beethoven, most of all. But these two last composers belong already to another world than that of Bach. 

On the Soviet method

Let's look back: you were born in 1972, your parents were scientists. At the age of five, the discovery was made that you had perfect pitch. On the website dedicated to you by one of your fans, I read that you had played a Beethoven sonata from memory, before even having studied the piano. Is this from the domain of legend ?

N.L. : No, it's true, but that was not so unusual. I had started playing for fun on a tiny piano of one-and-a-half octaves,  almost a toy. Then I had a sort of clavinova where I had to use my feet to generate sound. Finally, my parents bought me a proper piano. I was a bit older than six. One of the first pieces that I had heard in my childhood was the Sonata Op. 49 No. 20 of Beethoven. It's a very easy piece, more often classed as a sonatina than a sonata. Naturally, when I had a piano under my hands, the piece stood out in my mind and I played it. Then I had my first scores. I loved looking at them: I didn't read anything else. When I was ill and I had to stay at home, I was happy at the thought of being able to read my scores.... My parents therefore sent me to the Moscow Central School of Music.

At the Moscow Central School of Music, and at the Moscow Conservatory, did you suffer from the discipline which one imagines is terrible when one thinks of Russian teaching ?

N.L. : You have good reason to imagine it so. There is a great difference between our two systems of education. And that concerns education in general, not only musical education. In Russia, the system considers that children do not know what is good for them, and that children should bend themselves to whatever the adults decide for their development. At the same time, we consider that work is an indispensable notion, and that a child, of his own accord, will not apply himself sufficiently to this necessary apprenticeship. Therefore, we perform our duties and we obey. 

I understood this difference when I was taken to teach a master class in South America. After each student's performance, I said what I thought, I said what the performance had done for me, and I corrected the errors of understanding and the habits of the student.  At that point, they looked quite shocked. Maybe I was authoritarian without having explained myself: I found out later that, in their country, one must first congratulate the student, to tell him what he did that went well, and then to propose, on the tips of one's toes, a few improvements to bring to his playing!  That's not the way to learn. Anyway, that was not how I learned, when I was a child at the Moscow Central School of Music. I was knocked about - musically speaking - more than once. And that was so much better.

Don't you think that a bit of fantasy is also necessary, that, to play well, a young musician should have already lived a bit, to be a "bon vivant" ?

N.L. : Certain examples prove the opposite. Some children of twelve, some isolated adults, who live without passions or encounters or fantastic experiences, can be exceptional musicians.

Glenn Gould, for example, who was totally isolated...

N.L. : It's you who cites Glenn Gould. For my part, I think that he would have gained rather a lot by seeing the world and departing from his way of thinking. I find Gould's interpretation interesting, but it has never touched me. No, I am thinking for example of a certain number of Russian musicians whom I have had the chance to hear, some musicians of phenomenal talent, who have lives that are most austere, most simple, without passion ... apart from the passion for music. You know, the experiences of life - you can also find them in the scores, between the notes and the lines. It's enough for you to have imagination. Maybe this, ultimately, is the best school of life. But there is neither recipe nor method. For my part, I have my life and I have music. I do not know if the acts, the emotions, the evolutions of my life help me to play better. It's possible. But I know that, sometimes, if you allow your life to enter into your playing, that can also cause trouble.

You knew very little of the Soviet era. Have you felt the leaps and bounds of history ?

N.L. : Moscow, today, is not at all the same as twenty years ago. But I find it pointless to make a  value judgement and to decree that it was better or worse before. I think that it is our history and I take it in its entirety. Each era has a role to play and a meaning. That is not always obvious at first glance or while we are completely in it. We must step back from it.

And, stepping back from it, how do you see the Communist era ?

N.L. : Certain people deal with this dilemma by considering that Russian history stopped for sixty years, during the Soviet period. I don't think of it this way. This period was also part of our history. And not everything was thrown out in the Soviet model. There were, of course, numerous tragedies, but we made important advances during this era. Our system of education made great progress, as did the sciences.

And freedom ?

N.L. : We were not able to leave the country, of course, or  travel, or make grand declarations in Red Square, but an inner freedom existed. Perhaps even more than today. This freedom, this zest for life was our oxygen since we were close, in solidarity with one another. The feeling of love was stronger. The Russian soul was powerful. You believe that Neuhaus or Richter did not know the feeling of freedom. I think of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Pasternak, who had suffered from this system, and I tell myself that these very names may not have existed without this suffering, without these limits, without these prohibitions which ultimately amplified their resistance and their art. The relationships between the Soviet system and the artists were not simple. After having been reprimanded for his music, Shostakovich was awarded, several months later, the Stalin prize. Nothing is good or bad, nothing is white or black. I do not believe in an "axis of evil"!

With the help of God

Speak to us about Tatiana Nikolaeva, your teacher at the Moscow Conservatory ...

N.L. : I heard her in concert for the first time at the age of eight. A shock. She was a great pianist, who loved music and people. She would play like that, for some people, without caring to take any rest. When I began working with her, I was able to appreciate her openness of spirit. She allowed me a great deal of interpretive freedom.  And she didn't give me special technical advice, thinking that each virtuoso must find for himself, alone, his own technique. With her, I went to listen to the recitals in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Thus I was able to to hear Richter twice, Gilels once or twice - his last Moscow recital with Beethoven's Hammerklavier. It was marvelous. Tatiana Nikolayeva played a lot of twentieth century Russian music, for example the works of Chebaline, and the pieces of young Russian contemporary composers. This is the only part of her heritage which I have not carried further.

How does your faith in God manifest itself in your life and in your art ?

N.L. : I am a believer, like most people... even if, sometimes they are not conscientious. And I believe that the greatest musical works were created with the help of God. I am thinking of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin or again Rachmaninov.

In 1994, after an accident, you were not able to play for 3 months. Having barely recovered, you still won the Tchaikovsky Competition.... Is that to say that the body always follows when the spirit is willing, when inspiration and faith are there ?

N.L. : That accident was not very serious, but it was a difficult time anyway. A period of doubt and of transition. And then Tatiana Nikolaieva just died. I didn't want to enter competitions. It was Sergei Dorensky, Tatiana's assistant, of whom I myself am now an assistant at the conservatory, who pushed me to go there. Physically, it is always difficult when one has had such a pause. Vadim Repin told me the same story concerning this, and the difficulties of regaining his "competition" level after an interruption. If I had gone to the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1995 or 1996, that would have certainly been easier for me.

Yes, but you had won, despite everything. What was your programme ?

N.L. : You know, winning doesn't mean anything. It's not the most important. The programme was very classical: Bach preludes and fugues, Beethoven sonatas, four studies, two works of Tchaikovsky from The Seasons, Mephisto-Waltz, Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata, Tchaikovsky's Grand Sonata, Shostakovich preludes and fugues, and Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov for the final round.

You play chess. Is this a discipline - an exercise of concentration and of imagination akin to to the practice of music -  or is it a game ?

N.L. : I like games very much, and that's what chess is for me. Before, I played cards, in particular a game with a French name, but which the French do not know: "Preference".  It is a kind of bridge, but easier, and very popular in Russia. I also play ping-pong, tennis and badminton. I love to play. Today, my main distractions are chess tournaments.

You have two young children aged seven and five. How do they view your profession ?

N.L. : For them, it is a job like any other. They like music, they listen with pleasure, but I don't think that it will be their profession. I simply hope that they will become good amateur musicians.

When one travels so much within the world of music, from one work to another, from one century to another, does one return, from time to time, to one's own world ?

N.L. : Yes, I am myself when I am at home, in Moscow. I am myself when I teach at the conservatory. This is where having a family is especially useful; they allow you to stay in touch with what is real.

The Nikolai Lugansky Web Site