Interview: Nikolai Lugansky


First published in The Herald on 15 August, 2013

Nikolai Lugansky first played Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto when he was about 14. He learned Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto five years later. “My teacher told me that there had been a cancellation with an orchestra in the UK,” the Russian pianist recalls, “and asked whether I could be ready to perform the concerto in a month’s time. I had never tried to learn it before but I said yes, and came back to my lesson three days later having memorised the score from beginning to end. My teacher couldn’t believe it. In the end the orchestra engaged someone else, but I performed the piece in Moscow later that year.”

Lugansky is deadpan as he tells me this story, as if learning the infamous Rach Three is the equivalent of tackling a tricky jigsaw puzzle. For most mere mortals it’s a wee bit more daunting: open the score at pretty much any page and you’ll find reams of devilishly dense and muscular piano writing. How is it humanly possible to learn it all in three days?

Lugansky offers a gloriously protracted Slavic shrug. “If you are in love, really in love, then your forces are different than under normal conditions,” he says. “Maybe there are one or two pianists who don’t like Rachmaninov – don’t ask me what I think of them – but most people who start to play this music soon fall in love. And under the influence of such a strong feeling you can do a lot, including practise more.” But from memory? In three days? “Yes, why not? If you have no feelings for a person, you forget their face. If you fall in love, you remember the face instantly.”

Lugansky is one of the fixtures of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, with a solo Queen’s Hall recital then performances of Rachmaninov’s Second and Third concertos with Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra two nights on the trot at the Usher Hall. He has also just performed the Third Concerto with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra at the Proms, an account that was described by this paper as “a study in simplicity”.

Because although the 41-year-old pianist comes with a pedigree of Russian masters (at the Moscow Conservatoire his teachers included Tatiana Kestner, Tatiana Nikolayeva and Sergei Dorensky), he is admired as much for his carefully shaped, often quietly introspective phrasing as for his powerhouse virtuosity. And although his core repertoire encompasses the grand pianism of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the first half of his Queen’s Hall morning recital plays to the most intimate side of his musical personality, with Janacek’s mercurial In the Mists and Schubert’s four late Impromptus D935.

I ask him why he chose that particular combination. “Janacek was in a world of his own. He wrote almost over-emotional music and never felt easy fitting into Germanic forms like sonatas or variations. He needed more freedom. Both he and Schubert were naïve, in a way, with absolutely no defences. Their music leaves their souls naked because they didn’t build formal structures to protect themselves. Rachmaninov and Liszt had great success as virtuosos and public faces that they could present to the world. But Schubert and Janacek weren’t so well prepared for the practicalities of this life. They were like the tragic heroes of Schubert’s cycles.”

The second half of the recital shifts into more robust territory: five of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-tableau, Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este (a movement from his huge Years of Pilgrimage piano cycle) and Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I ask Lugansky whether he has to consciously shift mindset during the interval of a programme of two halves such as this. He unfurls another magnificent shrug. “No, it’s not a problem. In Janacek the mood can change in a second, from lullaby to hysterical. The interval will be a whole 20 minutes. Anyway, if something is difficult, it is my job not to share that difficulty with the audience.”

Lugansky discusses piano playing with the same unshakeable calm that governs his stage presence in performances. Even as a child his talent was an innate, inevitable force, something that was simply a part of him from the get-go. His parents weren’t musicians but discovered soon enough that he had perfect pitch and supported him “all they could”. When he was six they bought an upright piano and his father, who played a little guitar, taught him the basics of reading music. “There were a few LPs in the house, but it was through reading scores that I learned the most. I was better at reading scores than reading books. I would lie in bed reading through Beethoven sonatas.”

Lugansky is ambivalent about life in Moscow, where he was brought up and where he still lives with his wife and children. He has fond memories of the city – “in the late Soviet period it was probably the best place in the world for music education; it was free and if you were talented there were a lot of opportunities” – but says that nowadays the place has changed and that he tries to spend his summer months in the countryside. “You have to be tough to live in Moscow. The traffic, and the feeling that if you sit on a park bench and look at the sky you’re wasting time. There are a couple of dachas that I like to visit. There I can sit on a bench and feel comfortable just thinking. That, too, is an important part of being a musician.”

Nikolai Lugansky is at the Queen’s Hall on August 15 and plays Rachmaninov concertos with the Russian National Orchestra at the Usher Hall on August 19 and 20.