Nikolai Lugansky at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Nocturne in F, Op.15/1; Fantasy, Op.49; Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.45; Scherzo in E, Op.54; Nocturne in D flat, Op.27/2; Polonaise in A flat, Op.53
Klavierstücke, Op.118
Années de pélerinage: Deuxième annèe (Italie) – Sposalizio
Etudes d’execution transcendante – Chasse-neige; Harmonies du soir; No.10 in F minor (Appassionata)

Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 11 January, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Nikolaï LuganskyOver the last few decades the world has seen the emergence of a new species – the super-virtuoso, whose interpretative gifts do not necessarily match their technical prowess. Nikolai Lugansky is certainly in the super-virtuoso class and produces polished brilliance and this recital was an opportunity to see if he could beyond it.

The opening of Chopin’s F major Nocturne, was – depending on your point of view – clinically detached or crystalline. Unfortunately as the piece progressed the phrasing became foursquare with no sense of a long legato line. In the Fantasy the extended opening section had no rhythmic life, or finesse, and the music just plodded along. As in the Nocturne the use of the sustaining pedal was frugal and Lugansky’s right arm and hand seemed very stiff. The more reflective central section was episodic and the coda devoid of life or feeling. In the wonderful late Prelude (of which Cortot’s 1949 recording is a yardstick) the great rolling theme whose outline is heard only twice, was similarly unfeeling and in place of rubato there were unsubtle tempo adjustments. Lugansky’s treatment of the E major Scherzo was similarly prosaic and came across as a series of episodes. The performance only came alive in the coda’s virtuoso display. There was finesse in the D flat Nocturne during which the pianist seemed to visibly and audibly relax, but there was no rise and fall to the phrasing and line such as distinguishes Perahia’s playing of Chopin. All one can really say about the Polonaise is that the central section was very fast and that the rest failed to convey any sense of a thrilling martial dance.

One might have hoped that late Brahms would bring rather more involvement and subtlety. But the opening Intermezzo was devoid of feeling and while the second one brought limpid phrasing (once again Lugansky appeared to briefly relax) its central turbulent outburst seemed to be in a straightjacket, an artist stuck between the bar-lines, which is fatal in late Brahms – or any composer for that matter.

To his credit Lugansky chose Liszt pieces that – while incredibly difficult – are more introverted and never use display for anything other than musical ends. The opening of ‘Sposalizio’ was reminiscent of the Chopin Scherzo, but there was no innigkeit in what followed and as the music moved to its bell-like climax the surface didn’t shimmer and the right-hand became very crude; only in the coda did Lugansky offer anything truly reflective. In technical terms, the B flat minor Etude was remarkable. The double tenths, and double and alternating octaves were immaculate and the quite extraordinary bass passage in thirty-second and sixty-fourth notes was magical. Yet there was no soul. In ‘Harmonies du soir’, the opening aria didn’t sing and Lugansky only seemed truly happy when smashing out double octaves; while ‘Appassionata’ was prosaic. There were two encores, a Rachmaninov Prelude (Opus 32/Number 5) and Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu.

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