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Pianist Nikolai Lugansky weathers the storm of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd.Piano Concerto

If one listens to some of the Piano Mavens in attendance at Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky’s recent performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 at Avery Fisher Hall, it would seem that he did not show enough feeling.

Although Lugansky played the concerto alongside the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Charles Dutoit with utmost technical perfection, some critics complained. “He was too fast!” “It was too cold, too mechanic,” and “not luscious enough – and Rachmaninoff can be soo luscious!” were some comments within New York’s community of concert attendees, most of whom play piano at different levels themselves.

Critique from one’s ‘own rows’ is certainly not to be taken lightly, though I wonder why I experienced the concert so differently from many of these critics.  After the piece, the applause of the general audience seemed overwhelmingly devoted.

The concert took place on November 2nd in the aftermath of Sandy, a storm that had devastated many regions of the Tri- State area, leaving half of Manhattan without electricity and subway connections, yet many concert-goers braved the turbulent moods of nature out of respect to Dutoit’s legacy, and that of Lugansky, for whom this performance marked a New York debut; was it perhaps because of this psychologically fragile situation, New Yorkers demanded a more emotionally affecting response?

The hall was not at all filled to capacity, perhaps adding to the performance’s somewhat “cold” acoustics , dampening the piano’s ability to project lusciously, a situation on which Lugansky himself commented, at our meeting the next morning.

Complex delays in getting to the city due to limited access to transit and electricity required that some of the orchestra players be replaced. Charles Dutoit, who had lost some rehearsal time in addition to some of his personnel, felt it necessary to change the program. Instead of Claude Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien followed by Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, Op 43, the audience was greeted with the well-rehearsed, stormy Overture to Glinka’s Rusian and Ludmila (1842). Lugansky and Dutoit had worked together several times on this concerto, so it was a natural choice given the circumstances. Lugansky himself would not have made it in time had it not been for his friend, who both made the effort to find an open airport in Hartford, Connecticut for a connection and rushed the performer to the airport in Florida so that he would not be stranded in the Sunshine State. Lugansky luckily was able to attend the only rehearsal on Thursday. “I had just practiced the Paganini when a message came from Dutoit – we’ll play the concerto,” Lugansky explains, pleasantly calm like the pro he is, playing close to 100 concerts a year. “We had just performed it 2 weeks earlier in Boston.”

To me it was quite clear, especially in Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto, that Luganksy takes great pain to study recordings from the master himself, which he believes to be quite impossible to duplicate. He certainly takes cues from Rachmaninoff’s noted tempi, “which were always rapid,” as Lugansky remarks. Lugansky also admires Argerich’s and Kissin’s interpretations of the same concerto, which of course every pianist interprets very personally.

The concerto, composed in 1909 for celebrated pianist Josef Hofmann, is known to be extraordinary, even “technically monstrously“difficult, as the program notes suggest.  Lugansky, who made his American debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 1996 as Valery Gergiev’s soloist during his Kirov tour, is certainly no stranger to Rachmaninoff’s pianism, having won the Russian All-Union Rachmaninoff Competition in 1990 among many others.  Lugansky was also awarded the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik and the Echo Klassik 2005 award, for his recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 1 and 3. This September Lugansky released Rachmaninoff’s two Piano Sonatas on the Naïve –Ambroise label, to which the artist was recently signed. The concerto was originally premiered in New York, with the then New York Symphony before it procured and merged with the New York Philharmonic in 1928. It was of course premiered by the composer himself, as Rachmaninoff always insisted.  Historic benchmarks like this remain relevant today; we measure even the most extravagant contemporary performances by how they relate to the originals.

To Lugansky, the character of the music is everything; to be able to portray a work’s emotional meaning is what ultimately counts. He feels that this concerto in particular “is one of the most beautifully written piano concertos. It’s full of imagery, like in a Chekhov-novel. Especially the finale is like the heavens open, the dark forces disappear, almost immediately after the attack, bells announce the life affirming joy-Its God-given revelation. It’s a great joy to play this very pianistically written, wonderful piece.” There are, of course, many different ways one performs effectively: Rachmanioff will be always Rachmaninoff: double genius; as the composer, conceiving and putting his wonderful message to paper, he was Godly, and as the performer, he was always true to himself.

There are some performers who will always possess qualities that make them unmistakably unique; they excel at certain techniques and aspects of performance, and they will always have a particular style, no matter which composers’ music they play. Glenn Gould was great when playing Bach, Scriabin, Schoenberg; one could always recognize Gould when he played these composers’ works, and his audience loved him for it.  I aspire to be more like the other, more intellectually driven kind of performer. I see Michelangeli as one of these, who constantly attempt to re-invent the wheel with their performance of every composer’s work.  In his performances, there was less of himself and more of the composer, and he was stylistically different every time. Perhaps that is why he performed fewer repertoires than his contemporaries, but each performance was inherently unique to his understanding of the particular composer.  Lugansky tells me he always was an extremely quick study:”The first time I played Rachmaninoff’s 3rd concerto, I played it for my teacher [Maria Udinah] at the Central Music School.” Lugansky was 19 years old at that time, and he learned it in three days. “I was obsessed with it,” he says. To me, he certainly succeeded in giving Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 his own, stylistically precise and unique interpretation.  I felt his performance managed to deeply convey emotion with an accomplished technical ease.  I relished in the effect of Lugansky’s understated minimalism, even if it was different from some of that sweet lusciousness that others had expected to hear.



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