Torchbearer of a Great Tradition 

An Interview with Nikolai Lugansky 

From Pianowereld, September 1996
Written by Elger Niels
Translated by Eveline de Boer
Edited by Valour

Although the 24-year-old Nikolai Lugansky has lost the status of prodigy through the course of time, he is still one of the great musical promises of Russia: a young descendant of a great tradition of master pianists, going back to Anton Rubinstein and Franz Liszt.

Of course I was eager to know whether Lugansky himself experiences this connection with the past, so that was the first question I asked him during this interview.

Lugansky: "That is hard to say. At least I donít feel like a revolutionary or someone coming out of the blue. Just like my first teacher, Tatiana Kestner, my second teacher, Tatiana Nikolaieva, was a student of the famous Alexander Goldenweiser. I knew her during the last fifteen years of her life, and studied with her for nine years.

"Although in Russia we consider Goldenweiser to be one of the great pianists of the period right after the revolution, actually he was a contemporary and a good friend of Rachmaninov. They regularly played duets together. The mere fact that your teacherís teacher has such a past is of course an inspiring thought. In a sense I do feel connected to this tradition, but whether it comes out in the music - that is not for me to say. I do consider it a privilege to come from this great tradition."

With respect to this tradition, Lugansky explains the peculiar relationship between dictatorship and music: "It may sound like a paradox, but that great work of the Moscow Conservatory with teachers such as Goldenweiser and Konstantin Igumnov, is in fact a harvest of communism. Both art and science achieved enormous results thanks to the money the government made available for it. If you truly dare to face all the facts, it appears that all of this has been accomplished by a regime in which a manís life means nothing." Lugansky is genuinely worried about the downfall of this education system, now that considerably less money is allocated to it. The question of whether he has a calling to be a teacher, however, he cannot answer positively: "First I have to develop myself."

Great composers

Lugansky is less restrained when professing his great love for the work of Rachmaninov. How did this love develop? "That is a good question," answers the pianist. "There are indeed composers with whom you feel connected right away, like Chopin, Bach and Mozart. My love for Rachmaninov came up a little bit later, around my eleventh or twelfth year, but over the years it has become deeper and deeper. For Russians, Rachmaninov has something in his melodic style of writing that Bach has for Western Europeans. While Bach is rooted in choral melodies, likewise Rachmaninov is inextricably bound with raspyeva Ė Russian Orthodox church singing. Before Rachmaninov, Russian composers used this raspyeva only occasionally, but for Rachmaninov it was truly part of his life, one organic whole. The famous Vocalise may sound highly romantic, but it is entirely composed of intonations which find their origins in Russian church music.

"Together with Ravel and Richard Strauss I consider Rachmaninov to be one of the great masters of the nineteenth century. I have less affinity with this century. I think Prokofiev and Bartok are great composers. Shostakovich has written very good music, but also much lesser music. And Stravinsky I find too 'cold'. For me, composing has to have something inevitable about it. The fire of inspiration needs to be so hot that a composer cannot live without composing. And after all, true geniuses are rare.

Programmes of Solo Recitals

Lugansky puts many late works of Chopin and Rachmaninov on the programmes of his solo recitals: "Most of the time these late works exert a special attraction to me. Chopin was looking for Ďthe endí in music and Rachmaninov lived in the final period of the Romanticism. He deeply sensed the coming political tragedy beforehand."

Suddenly Lugansky confesses: "You know, it is very difficult to make up a programme for a recital? The response of the public depends on so many factors. Recently I heard Gustav Mahlerís Fifth Symphony in the Concertgebouw. Fantastic music, but it was performed early in the morning and, for myself, I cannot say that at such a time I can take in that music very easily. Life is a development and music is a development Ė it is impossible to predict whether both can come together in a recitalís programme. If you can say anything about it, you might say that a solo recital must at least be in harmony with yourself."

Great Pianists

Lugansky continues: "Creating a great arch in a recital is also exclusively reserved for the greatest. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli knew that art. His perfection was close to fanaticism. Making music was almost a religion. He sacrificed his whole life to it. That touches me. I also admire Sviatoslav Richter, although not everything of his. His studio recordings are often a little sterile. But all the recitals I have heard him perform were great experiences for me. The way in which he divides the musical intervals is really fantastic. He plays every work as one phrase. He is not only able to hear from the outside, but also to listen from within, in himself. In 1992 I attended his concert in Amsterdam when he played Sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven and in Moscow I heard him play, among others, Hindemith and Debussy. Incredible! Among the younger pianists I especially admire Grigory Sokolov, and Radu Lupu. Lupu possesses the rare power of letting the music speak for itself."

Tatiana Nikolaieva

And of course the subject of conversation finally returned to Luganskyís teacher, Tatiana Nikolaieva. Almost three years after her death her memory lives on vividly in her young student: "Tatiana Nikolaieva knew how to be one in her life and in her art. She possessed such warmth, as a person and musician, in sound and in spirit. All music came from that life. She shared her house with her mentally handicapped brother and did not get married until later in life. In 1962, when she was 38, she had a son, Kyrill. Six years later her husband died. That was a severe blow for her. In the late seventies she remarried, with an architect, but he did not live long either, so she spent her final years alone with her brother and her son.

"Many great musicians donít accept life as unconditionally as music, but that did not apply to her. Tatiana became known in the West much too late, for at a much younger age she was an incredible virtuoso. After her death I started listening to many of her early recordings. Her recording of Tchaikovskyís Piano Concerto No 1 from 1959 is unique: technically stunning and full of fire. Tatiana was open to everything. She loved everything. Her piano sound was her soul."

From 20 to 23 November Nikolai Lugansky plays for the first time with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and in Enschede. On 26 November he plays a Chopin recital in Amsterdam at Cristoforiís. Also see the CD reviews in this issue.

The Nikolai Lugansky Web Site