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Nikolai Lugansky, Queen Elizabeth Hall, review

01.12.11
Nikolai Lugansky
Telegraph (UK)

By Ivan Hewett

From the grand Russian school of piano playing, Lugansky managed to be shapely and expressive as well as dark and regretful.

Nikolai Lugansky is a product of the grand Russian school of piano-playing — perhaps one of the last, given that such things as national “schools” barely exist any more — and it seemed somehow right that he should stride on stage with a stiff aristocratic elegance and the faintest half-smile.

With that pedigree you’d expect a consistently dark and heavy sound, but the instantly striking thing about Lugansky’s sound was how limpid it was. This was a boon in the first half, which was given over entirely to Chopin. Little details in the texture became shapely and expressive just by virtue of being so clearly visible, like stones at the bottom of a pure stream. The opening F major Nocturne starts in a mood of gentle regret but soon becomes stormy — though never frantically so in this performance. The slow march that launches the well-known Fantaisie had an almost balletic grace, and the tumultuous middle section was tremendously stirring without ever being feverish. In the Scherzo, Lugansky allowed the music’s expressive weight to swell to grandeur, while keeping the actual sound always clear and uncluttered.

Some might have found it all a mite too controlled, but Lugansky also had a strategic aim in view. The second half of his recital consisted of Brahms and Liszt, and he wanted to be sure each composer had their own distinctive emotional colour. In Brahms’s late Piano Pieces Op 118 it’s a dark, regretful evening twilight we enter, and how well Lugansky revealed it. The still moment in the fifth piece which evokes the bliss of the cradle had a lovely glow, but it was the final piece that was the most moving. So much desolation expressed in a few broken phrases, and Lugansky captured it all.

After that, the clutch of pieces by Liszt, including three Transcendental Studies, could just have seemed flashy. But here Lugansky found another kind of sound, hard to describe, that made the music seem sympathetic. It wasn’t dark and inward, as in Brahms, it wasn’t reserved, as in Chopin. The closest I can get is “grandly matter-of-fact”. Which was exactly right, because in these pieces Liszt’s attention is turned outwards. He’s painting scenes, whether it’s snow falling, as in Chasse-neige, or wedding bells, as in Sposalizio. Lugansky limned them all in brilliant colours, with plenty of virtuoso swagger to add a touch of the sublime.