Star of Russia
A meeting with pianist Nikolai Lugansky

From Telerama,  31 January 2001
Written by Bernard Merigaud
Translated from the original French by Valour and S. Kol.

A bright future assured at his young age, Nikolai Lugansky belongs to the prestigious tradition of Neuhaus or Richter, pianists who preferred interiority over virtuosity.

The Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory resembles an old dowager exhausted by former glory and left to herself. Nikolai Lugansky crosses its stage with a lightness that imparts elegance to his stage-fright.

"I discovered this fear when I was nine years old, while playing the Schumann Arabesque. Before this age, I was less nervous when I performed." he later admits, with disarming simplicity. As soon as his long hands are poised over the keyboard, they not only take possession of the third concerto of Rachmaninov, but they seem to welcome into their protection a bit of the history of this hall... and the roughness of a chaotic orchestra, painfully typical of the musical Russia of today. 

"I thought of nothing other than the sonority. I wanted to 'sing' the melody at the piano and find for it an adequate accompaniment...Nothing more !" said Rachmaninov of this concerto. Hence, without effort or ostentation, Nikolai Lugansky rises to the occasion. Alone. Faced with an insecure orchestra, he launches his appeals to the brasses, to the strings, to the woodwinds and amplifies himself at their echo; question and answer are left to faith. The luminous velocity of his phrases makes a mockery of the technical failings raised in the storm. His power, of a density which is never aggressive, elevates the soul to a persistently human level : just above the heart.

"The pianist of tomorrow", prophesised his teacher, the great Tatiana Nikolaeyeva, before her death in 1993. Today, at twenty-eight years of age, Nikolai Lugansky does not flinch at this much-repeated compliment, but smiles at the fact that he is hailed as the continuation of a prestigious line of pianists preferring interiority to virtuosity: Heinrich Neuhaus, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter. "Those personalities had nothing in common !" he replies. Perhaps a certain Russian tradition, could you, by any chance ... A likable boy, he looks for a reason to let you be right: "The Russians do not like harshness of tone. They seek a lyrical dimension akin to operatic singing..."

When you cite his nine years of apprenticeship to Tatiana Nikolaeva, Nikolai Lugansky almost apologizes for his silence: "I worked a lot on my own, since she was always busy with concerts, tours, judging competitions, courses which she taught everywhere. To such a point that one day I asked her how she could maintain such a rhythm. 'How could I ever tire of music ?' she answered me with a radiant smile which will stay with me forever."

Silver Medal at the Leipzig Bach Competition in 1988, Second Prize at the Moscow Rachmaninov Competition in 1990, winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition four years later: Nikolai Lugansky remembers these ordeals in terms of headaches and physical discomforts. When you ask him how, at the age of nineteen, he was affected by the fall of communism, he responds with humour: "Under the Soviets, we had a dislike of going to play abroad. Today, we have a dislike of working abroad, especially in the United States, where any Russian is suspected of belonging to the mafia !"

Colourist, architect, playing with dynamic nuances, the pianist does not in fact reveal himself except to his instrument. However he always mentions with feeling his discovery of music. His parents, a physicist and a chemist, had bought a sort of mechanical piano, rigged to play famous Soviet songs. From the first notes, the five-year-old boy in the next room cried "That's wrong." It was realised then that he had perfect pitch. The song was entitled : The Sun Rises For All.

Read this article in French

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