Nikolai Lugansky and the unattainable ideal
A young Russian pianist on tour in the USA

Date of interview: 1 May 1997
Interviewer:  Niels Swinkels
Translated from the original Dutch by Yolande Van de Weerd
Edited by Valour

Remarkably, the 25-year-old Nikolai Lugansky does not consider himself a “young” pianist.

“Most famous pianists were already well-known before the age of twenty-five.” he says. “Only a few became famous later on”.

Does he consider himself a late bloomer?

“No, it is good this way. Between twenty and fifty is the best time for a pianist. Not only with regard to cultural and artistic maturity but also with regard to one's physical condition.” By this he doesn’t mean that he is now at his peak.

“Not at all. This profession fortunately has the advantage that you never can reach your ideal. It can always be better.”

Nikolai Lugansky, born in 1972, started piano lessons at the age of six and was admitted to the Moscow Central Music School at seven. There, he studied for eleven years before entering the Moscow Conservatory. At the age of fourteen he won a national competition for young musicians in Tbilisi, and shortly afterwards he was giving concerts all over Europe. In May 1990 he made his debut in the Netherlands in Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht, replacing the indisposed Maria Joao Pires at the last minute. In December of that same year he made his first appearance at the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam. In 1994 he won the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

One of his teachers at the Moscow Conservatory was the famous pianist and composer Tatiana Nikolaeva, who died in 1993 while giving a recital on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. It's on this same stage that Nikolai Lugansky will appear for the first time on the evening of this interview. We meet him in his spacious suite in a quiet, renowned hotel within walking distance from the concert hall. He is wearing slippers and a colourful party shirt buttoned all the way up to the top.

“Tatiana Nikolaeva was frequently on tour. She gave concerts all over the world. That is why she gave me only one lesson every one-and-a-half or two months. But in fact I never had a teacher supervising me constantly and giving me lessons every day.” says Lugansky, speaking English fluently and inserting the occasional German word when he cannot find the right English expression. “For me, it is normal to work alone for long periods. This also has a few advantages. You can live your own life. In this way, my musical life is my own life. And what I am doing is totally my own style, not the style of someone else. Officially I still have lessons at the Moscow Conservatory, but in practice, it's only occasionally that I play before my teacher or his assistant. Most of the time I study alone - I just open the score and start playing. I don’t have a special way of working. I sight-read a lot of works, but to become one with a composition you have to build up a certain relationship, like a marriage. You have to live together with a piece. The more time you spend with a score, the more it is going to live for you."


Russian tradition

Lugansky finds it difficult to categorize himself as a pianist of the Russian school, as far this school exists.

“I studied for seventeen years in Russia, so it is obvious that I am allied to Russia,” he says “but it is not of great interest to say to which tradition I belong. I am different from other pianists because I am Nikolai Lugansky and not anybody else."

He concedes that in Russia, there exists a unique method of education.

“In Russia, starting from the age of six or seven, children can receive a fantastic musical education at the Central Music School of Moscow which was founded in the 30’s. They attend all the usual lessons but also music, in the same building and on the same day. This is not only very practical but also very professional.”

To the question of whether he was ever considered a child prodigy, he reacts with reticence.

“In some way, we were all child prodigies. Everybody at the Central Music school was, at a certain time, able to play difficult pieces from Liszt or Rachmaninoff. This was normal - everybody could do that whether he was talented or not - just because we had enough training, enough skill and technique to do so. But school is only an expedient. Talent is the most important thing. Talent does not depend on the school, country or nationality. It's either there or it's not.”


Ensemble playing

According to Lugansky there is, however, a notable difference between musicians educated in Russia and those from the West.

“Ensemble playing is better developed by Western musicians. Russian musical education is more directed toward playing as a soloist - toward the best performance for yourself - and not toward ensemble playing. When I rehearsed for the first time with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, they played the score of Tchaikovsky ‘s Second Piano Concerto for the first time, from beginning to end. The musicians immediately had a feeling for how to play this music together. This would have been more difficult in Russia. But I am talking now about Russian music schools in general terms. On the highest level this is, of course, not the case. It would be, for instance, very strange to say of Sviatoslav Richter, that he is 'Russian school'. He is just Sviatoslav Richter and that says enough.”

We hear the name of this respected pianist, now eighty-two years old, frequently during this conversation. It seems that Lugansky is a great admirer of Richter. To his regret, he has never met him personally.



Lugansky spends about six months of the year touring.

“Your life changes drastically because you cannot be in control of your own time. You are constantly on the road. At the airport, at the hotel, or at the concert hall. And the most important thing is always the concert of that evening. Everything else matters less. Is music my life ? No. I have a wife and a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, at home in Moscow. That is my life.”

The decision to go to America seems to be very conscious one for Nikolai Lugansky.

“There are not so many pianists who would decide not to go to America if they had the chance. It is a big country with a lot of possibilities.” he says. He makes clear, however, that there are no great financial differences with playing in Europe. This is in contrast with Japan where the fees for a concert are considerably higher. As for cultural differences he does not want to express himself yet.

“I have been playing in Europe since 1989, and here only since this season. I cannot make comparisons yet. About the public either. The public does not exist. If there are a thousand people in a hall, there are thousand different kinds of people present. There might be a Sviatoslav Richter in the hall, or somebody who is sitting there by accident because he had nothing better to do that evening.



A glance at the repertoire of Nikolai Lugansky reveals that he is particularly devoted to the great classics: music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. To the question of why he occupies himself principally with the "iron" repertoire, his reaction is defensive.

“I also play works of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. But it is no secret that the greatest piano music was written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” He says, adamantly, “I am only able to play a work if I feel that it is 'great music' and if I feel close to the piece. If I don’t have this feeling, I don’t play it.”

Has he ruled-out some music from the start?

“I never say never. There is so much music. I have never performed a piano concerto by Bartok, but I certainly know that I will do it some day. And a genius like Mozart, I will always play”. He philosophizes further: “Two hundred years ago almost only contemporary music was played. Now you can go on a given day to any big city and you can hear all sorts of music, from mediaeval to contemporary. That is the problem for modern music - competition from the past. It is very difficult, and perhaps impossible to reach or to surpass the level of Mozart, Chopin or Rachmaninov. And there is so much beautiful music that is never played, by Sibelius for instance, or Nielsen. These composers are not very popular but they wrote fantastic music."

But music of Ravel or Debussy, for instance, are completely absent from the repertoire. At this point, a hint of indignation can be detected in Lugansky's voice.

“I don’t think that many 25-year-old pianists have more works in their repertoire than I do. It is almost impossible to play everything ... you have to make a choice. Only a pianist like Richter plays everything, as Nikolayeva also did. If you play a certain piece you have to be a specialist for that piece. The same applies if you play all the works by a certain composer. That takes time. Rachmaninov, for instance, is very important to me. Probably I will be occupied with his music all my life. The same will be true for my other favourites: Bach, Mozart and Chopin. But this does not mean that I will never play Ravel. It is normal to work for a few years in a certain direction. Then you quickly get the stamp of “specialized”, but that is a misguided idea of the masses because they don't know anything about a musician.”

The Nikolai Lugansky Web Site