A Pianist Chooses a Light Touch Over Heavy Hands

05.24.10
Nikolai Lugansky
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

The Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky has a formidable technique, and when he puts a bit of muscle behind it, he produces the big sound that characterizes the Russian style. But mostly, in his recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sunday as on his recordings, Mr. Lugansky seemed less interested in traditional Russian pyrotechnics than in transparency and refinement.

Those qualities, applied to the music of Chopin, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, sometimes made Mr. Lugansky’s performances seem reserved, even aloof. Yet the unusual gentleness he brought to several Chopin works, including the Nocturne in D flat (Op. 27, No. 2) and parts of the Fantaisie in F minor (Op. 49), gave his readings a particular allure. Where a pressured approach that underscored a passage’s emotional heat was the obvious (and standard) interpretation, Mr. Lugansky tended to phrase the music carefully and quietly, letting it sing.

That said, he also let the music build, and his apparent aversion to using weight and power was by no means universal. That same Chopin fantaisie, which began as a whispered rumination, expanded inexorably and achieved its full measure of turbulence. And his performance of the Scherzo No. 4 was rich in sparkling detail and grand, outgoing gestures.

A light touch in Prokofiev is even more unusual than it is in Chopin, but in the Sonata No. 4 in C minor, Mr. Lugansky set aside the notion that Prokofiev need always have a steely edge. He played the opening Allegro molto sostenuto of this 1917 work with a dark, controlled rumble and an almost organic ebb and flow, and brought a gauzy, seductive tone to the Andante assai. Even his brisk, driven reading of the finale prized textural clarity over forcefulness. Its excitement was more intellectual — a matter of being able to see the variegated strands of this fast movement — than visceral.

Mr. Lugansky closed his program with Rachmaninoff’s Opus 33 Études-Tableaux. He played all nine works originally composed for the set: the six the composer published in 1911, with Nos. 2 and 5 (published posthumously) and No. 4 (published as part of Opus 39) restored to their original positions.

Mr. Lugansky was at his best here. These pieces are technically demanding but hardly ever explosive, and though pianists are fascinated by their difficult figuration and their constant hand-crossing, their real charm is in their gracefully winding melodies. Mr. Lugansky’s sense of balance was impeccable: the top lines were beautifully fluid, yet the rippling accompaniments were played with such fine detail that they exerted a pull of their own.