Nikolai Lugansky at Wigmore Hall – Liszt & Rachmaninov

Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième année (Italie) – I: Sposalizio
Wagner, trans. Liszt
Tristan und Isolde – Liebestod
Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor, Op.28

Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 27 February, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Nikolai LuganskyThe daring harmonies and textures of ‘Sposalizio’, Liszt’s musical response to the Raphael painting of the marriage of Joseph and Mary, were written as long ago as 1839 as part of the Italian leg of Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). Liszt’s striking response to art rarely fails to amaze, and made an atmospheric beginning to this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert. Nikolai Lugansky played with commendable restraint, observing the quiet dynamics, and refusing to rush phrases. With judicious use of the pedal and a clean sound, his approach was on occasion quite economical, but served the music extremely well, with even the big, central section delivered with impressive restraint.

The same qualities were prevalent in Lugansky’s performance of Liszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’, a barely believable reduction from orchestral forces to two hands on the piano. The shuddering tremolandos of the climactic passages were technically faultless, but to go with the physical command the harmonic subtleties, of which there are so many, were revealed in minute detail. Initially this led to a slightly cool approach, but the temperature warmed considerably as Lugansky got going.

Rachmaninov’s First Piano Sonata has enjoyed a greater popularity of late, thanks in part to recordings from Olli Mustonen, Leslie Howard and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Lugansky’s approach was instructive. He took a broader approach to tempos and phrase length, the piece building-up more gradually in emotional intensity. Initially the mood was pensive and studied, Lugansky detached, with the staccato of the main theme all but removed – but the atmosphere still tense with foreboding. Gradually the drama – which Rachmaninov based on the legend of Faust – took shape, and the second theme, a reworking of the familiar ‘Dies Irae’, tolled in a manner reminiscent of Liszt. Its arrival in the major key, however, was no-holds-barred and stunning in its powerful execution.The ‘Lento’ was dreamy to begin with but again grew more agitated, faster figurations taking hold. The finale was brilliantly judged and performed, again with relatively little pedal so that there was clarity in the midst of a maelstrom of notes. The increasingly jagged figurations depicted the struggles of Walpurgisnacht in musical form, until the heady recapitulation had the pianist rising from his seat. At no point, however, was the virtuosity used for display purposes, as this was clearly a reading of personal significance. Lugansky gave an extremely impressive performance.

As an encore he chose Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G, the fifth from the Opus 32 set, drawing more parallels with Liszt in the watery figuration for right-hand, which was once again superbly controlled.

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