Pianist Lugansky in synch with today’s St. Petersburg Philharmonic
Pianist Nikolai Lugansky is a busy musician. Concert tours keep him away from his home in Moscow for as long as six months out of the year.
“There’s always something,” he said of his hectic schedule in a phone interview from the Westin Inn in Arlington, VA. “It’s almost unpredictable.”
Lugansky’s schedule currently has him on a ten-day, six-city U.S. tour with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, which includes a stop in Carnegie Hall Saturday night. He will be performing Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, an unusual piece for him among American audiences.
The 44-year old pianist is known primarily in this country for his performances of Russian works. Yet in the past few years he has found a deepening relationship to other repertoire.
“I always wanted to be a wide-ranged pianist,” he says. “In the States I’m probably known more as a Rachmaninoff player, but I play a lot of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, etc. And there are some composers whom I discovered for myself, like Franz Liszt.”
Brahms’ First Piano Concerto is also something of a late interest for the pianist, who first played the work in public in his late 20s. The piece, which the composer crafted from sketches of a symphony and a piano sonata, requires enormous technical facility as well as posing interpretive challenges that often elude even big-name artists.
“I would say that sometimes I think [the Second Concerto] is still more difficult. But I remember Nelson Freire said it was the other way around,” Lugansky joked.
Built into the First Concerto is a searching lyricism that is particularly attractive to Lugansky. “In every note, it’s music of very young man with unbelievably strong passions,” he said. “One can say that the second movement is religious music. This comes in the softest place, [and the music builds] almost to exaltation. [Brahms] probably never wrote something so passionate. But that makes this piece so unique and special.”
Lugansky’s approach to the work falls between extremes of classical grandeur and intense emotionalism. He cites two recordings as models for his interpretation.
“I remember hearing a very young Krystian Zimerman with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic,” he recalls, citing a 1984 Deutsche Grammophon recording. “It is very impressive,” he says. “The orchestra played in a very classical style, which I think was a wonderful result.
“And very recently I saw on YouTube—and I think it’s already deleted—a recording of Radu Lupu. It was wonderful the way he played. Lupu [there] was actually less classical than Zimerman or his [other] recordings. That was quite a surprise for me. It was so passionate and so spontaneous.”
Lugansky will have a simpatico partner in the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, which will be led by Yuri Temirkanov.
The ensemble became internationally famous under the direction of Yevgeny Mravinsky, whose 50-year tenure, Lugansky says, created a firm, if somewhat academic sound quality. Under Temirkanov’s direction, which began in 1988, Lugansky has noticed a transformation.
“Today it’s for me more comfortable to play with this orchestra than it was 20 years ago,” the pianist says. “It has the same qualities that Mravinsky [brought], so a fantastic sound, great culture.” But it’s more flexible now, he says. “The sound of strings is so very deep, very beautiful,” he continued. “It’s never something formal, never something abstract. It’s full of tension.”
Lugansky’s playing has been noted for that same tension and intensity. Born in 1972 to two Russian research scientists, he developed an interest in music from a young age. His talent was natural. Before he learned to read music, he taught himself to play a Beethoven piano sonata by ear.
Lessons in piano took him to Moscow Central Music School and, eventually, the Moscow Conservatory. Silver medal finishes at the Bach Competition in Leipzig in 1988, Rachmaninoff Competition in Moscow in 1990, and International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994, thrust him onto the international spotlight. Critics in the West have since viewed him as the first in a new generation of great Russian pianists.
But when asked about the Russian school today, Lugansky demurred.
“The view from the West and the view from Russia are completely different,” he says. “The Western critics usually wrote that the Soviet Russian piano school always produced great virtuosos who got a lot of prizes. And the Russian critic would say that the Russian school is based first on analyzing the form of the piece, and then other things.”
“I think that we cannot [talk] about the Russian piano school [today],” he said, because so many Russians teach now all over the world, in Asia, Japan, and Australia.”
That wasn’t the case when Lugansky was growing up. Then, the Soviet system still offered free music lessons for gifted children. That, the pianist said, served as the basis for the supremacy of the Russian school in the twentieth century.
Lugansky’s education does fit him squarely within that tradition. He counts as his influences his first teachers, Tatiana Kestner and Tatiana Nikolayeva. Both were pupils of Alexander Goldenweiser, an influential pedagogue of the early twentieth century.
Luganksy, in a small way, keeps the tradition alive. He serves as an assistant to Sergei Dorensky, another of his teachers, at the Moscow Conservatory. He teaches, he says, “very, very little.”
“It’s nice but it’s not a real job [for me],” he said. “It’s more like enjoying young talented students who sometimes play for me.”
Yuri Temirkanov will lead the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, featuring Nikolai Lugansky as soloist, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, Saturday at 7 p.m. in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium. carnegiehall.org
Aaron Keebaugh is a musicologist and regular contributor to Boston Classical Review. His articles have appeared in British Post-graduate Musicology and the Musical Times.