"A lifetime is not enough..."

An Interview with pianist Nikolai Lugansky 
From Russian Thought, Paris, N 4354,  22 February 2001
Written by Victor Ignatov
Computer translation from Russian to English
Edited by Valour

In the course of one month in Paris it is possible, twice, to hear Nikolai Lugansky, silver medal-winner of the international competitions of Bach (1988), Rachmaninoff (1990) and winner of the Moscow competition of Tschaikovsky (1994). In the Theatre du Chatelet the 28-year old Muscovite played the Sonata No.30 of Beethoven and 24 Preludes of Chopin. Then in the Theatre du Champs Elysees, the Fourth Piano Concerto of Beethoven with the Orchestre Lamourex under the direction of Yutaka Sado (a recording of this concert will be played on Radio Classique on 8 April at 16.30). Of his performance of the Chopin Etudes, critic Alain Lompech wrote in the newspaper Le Monde  that we had been waiting for this, that such playing has not been heard since the time of Alfred Cortot (1933). 

Between appearances in Paris, Nikolai Lugansky took part in a festival of Russian music in Nantes, where he gave us an exclusive interview.

Q: Over five concerts at the festival you performed solo, in duet and with the orchestra. Which gives the greatest satisfaction to you ?

Chamber music. When you play with partners who are close to you as musicians and as people, then, on the one hand, there is this service to music, and on the other, intercourse with people whose company is pleasant to you. Concertos with orchestra are the most magnificent form of music. It is only fair that these happen in the greatest halls. As far as nervous energy is concerned, solo recitals take the heaviest toll. But on the other hand, this opportunity to know and reveal oneself makes it the most the important form of music for the pianist. And it's no wonder that some great musicians almost cease to play solo concerts, because this requires absolutely terrible self-criticism. Here there is too much freedom, and still more responsibility. Your fate is in your own hands. Even when you repeat a program, each time it is a journey to a completely unknown land. 

Q: What are your musical preferences ?

Among composers, conductors and pianists I always say first, Rachmaninoff. I love to play Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and also composers who wrote very little for the piano - Bruckner, Sibelius, Nielsen. It is easier to say who I love among pianists. First of all it is necessary to name Tatiana Petrovna Nikolayeva, who was my teacher for nine years. And, of course, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli; in my view, he came closest to Rachmaninoff's level of pianism. Among living pianists, Radu Lupu, Nelson Freire. Among Russians - Mikhail Pletnev. There are many remarkable musicians whose concerts I attend. Among conductors, I love Carlos Kleiber; it is true, I have never heard him in live performance, but I have several video recordings. 

Q: Your repertoire consists of classics. Why you do not play contemporary music? 

So much great music has been written for the piano that a lifetime is not enough to play it all. I try to play and to record that which I love very much, and, with the grace of God, as far as this is possible. Among contemporary music perhaps I simply have not encountered that which would touch me. Furthermore, I feel that each art goes through an age of magnificent flowering and then gradually declines. In music, it seems to me, the period of bloom nevertheless was in the past - the eighteenth, nineteenth, and first half of twentieth the century. During this period much great music was created, but it was seldom performed. I already mentioned Sibelius and Nielsen, among the Russian composers, Glazunov, Medtner, Miaskovsky... there is a lot of little-known music. Furthermore, tonal music is nearer to me than atonal. 

Q: The climax of your appearances in Nantes was the Third Concerto of Rachmaninoff. What is your assessment of this devilishly difficult work? 

I do not consider this concerto to be the most difficult, although learning it was actually quite difficult. But in my case, it happened that I worked at it like it was an emergency, and I learned it in three days. Tatiana Nikolayeva had said to me that there was a possibility of playing it in Scotland in three weeks. I had never played this concerto before, and when I learned it in three days, she did not believe me. And then afterwards it was revealed to me that the planned performance would not be held.

The piano and orchestral textures of the Third Concerto are written in such a way that one simply needs to not spoil it. For me the Second Concerto is something which is more difficult, because there, it is necessary to "break through" the orchestra; there are great ensemble difficulties. I always play the Third Concerto with great pleasure.

Rachmaninoff wrote it when there was not yet this gloom which came into his music after the 20's. In this concerto, besides the usual Rachmaninovian tragedy, there is a surprising light of beauty, the very same which would save his world. This optimism can no longer be perceived in the Fourth Concerto and the Symphonic Dances. But here, there is something which now sounds especially poignant, because we know that all this will be destroyed and will forever cease to be. This concerto is very complex in form and texture, immediately reaching any listener. 

Q: In one week you will play, in Paris, the Fourth Concerto of Beethoven. What is the significance of this for you? 

This is my favourite piano concerto of Beethoven. Even its place among Beethoven's compositions is amazing: he wrote the Appassionata and the Third Symphony in the same period. And what a contrast ! For Beethoven, that period, when action and drama were so predominant, it is difficult to believe that at the same time he  wrote this composition in which there is practically no action and conflict, but there is contemplation of divine beauty - the beauty of the world and nature. This is found in later compositions. 

When I was 14 or 15 years old, I literally became ill with Bruckner's music. Then the Chicago Symphony Orchestra arrived in Moscow and played the Eighth Symphony of Bruckner. After this, I learned - almost by heart - practically all his symphonies. And here is this sense of musical time, which then seemed to go against Beethovenian laws, and the development of the sonata form, when there is no constant conflict, but there is a certain spreading time, which does not have a goal. This was for me, something new. 

Later I saw that, strangely, in Beethoven. It is known that Bruckner wrote his slow movements in a form that was first created by Beethoven, the greatest manifestation being in the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony. The mood and sensation of musical time in the Fourth Concerto, and its outlook toward the surrounding world, is very close to this.

Q: Your performing style resembles that of Tatiana Nikolayeva, who was one of the best interpreters of Bach. Could you somehow describe your style ? 

I do not know what style I have, but it was formed undoubtedly under the influence of Tatiana Nikolaeva. For the first five and a half years I learned from Tatiana Yevgenyevna Kestner, a remarkable teacher. She and Tatiana Petrovna were both students of Goldenweiser, and they were good friends to each other. When I was in my second year, Nikolaeva came to visit Kestner, and we were introduced. She played - these were the happiest times: it was possible to see this most talented pianist close-up. She was a very generous person: if people wanted it, she played. These were rare events. So I knew her since I was 8 years old, but I became her student at 13. 

Now that Nikolaeva is no longer here, I sometimes feel sad that she had not insisted on influencing me: there are things which I try to learn from her now, by listening to her records. But she was never the pedagogical mentor: she attempted together with the student to be introduced to great music. Moreover, she gave so many concerts, she had such a full life that I saw her only two or three times a month, even as her official student.

Nikolaeva's influence was not limited to lessons: I went to her concerts, we played music together, we listened at home to a lot of music. She brought records and always asked me to listen to them. This was my interaction with someone who was dear and close. This was how she taught, so I continue to learn in this way after her death. 

Q: How do you perceive the public? 

I was taught from childhood that the relationship with the music is more important than the relationship with the public. I do not believe that really there is "a public". There are people sitting in a hall, and they are very different. When I play, it is for one person. Classical music, in my opinion, addresses one person. There could be three thousand such people in a hall, or five, or one.

Q: What are your immediate plans ?

After the Nantes festival, there is one night in Amsterdam where I will play the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21. Then in Paris, the Fourth Concerto of Beethoven. Then I have several appearances in Russia, including in Sarov. These are former Arzamas-y', the birthplace of the Hydrogen bomb. At the end of March - beginning of April there will be several concerts in Italy. In April I will record a Chopin CD in Berlin. Then in Lisbon I will take part in a festival of Russian music, organized by R. Martin. 

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