Listen to two tracks from Nikolai Lugansky's new Rachmaninov album

Nikolai Lugansky

Plus, Lugansky speaks to Geoffrey Norris about tackling Rachmaninov's piano sonatas

‘They’re not my bars, they’re Rachmaninov’s,’ retorts Nikolai Lugansky when the producer asks him about an extra four-bar passage that seems to have appeared in the finale of Rachmaninov’s First Sonata. We’re at Potton Hall in Suffolk for the recording sessions of Lugansky’s new Naïve coupling of the First and Second Sonatas. Nicolas Bartholomée, founder and president of the French sound-engineering firm Little Tribeca, is at the control desk; Lugansky is just emerging from the studio, looking slightly dejected and asserting that he wants to achieve a more ‘catastrophical’ crescendo in the portion of the finale that he’s just been playing. This is all part of Lugansky’s quest for perfection – perfection not just in negotiating the notes but in getting to the expressive nub of the music and in responding to the spontaneity and interpretative imagination it can ignite. In the next take, the crescendo is exactly what Lugansky was aiming for.

Lugansky is recording the huge, physically demanding First Sonata for the first time. He made a disc of the Second Sonata 20 years ago, in the shorter, revised version of 1931. But now he has opted for the original score of 1913, with some amendments that reveal a thoughtful, thorough approach akin to the one that has led to the insertion of those four bars in the First Sonata’s finale. It is well known that Rachmaninov made cuts to the First Sonata before its publication in 1908, and in this instance Lugansky feels that a discrepancy between the exposition and the recapitulation needs to be rectified. The passage in question is the meno mosso section (marked molto risoluto in the exposition) where the Dies irae is firmly defined in dotted notes. In the exposition it forms a 10-bar diminuendo before the next leggiero section; in the recapitulation it is only six bars long, but Lugansky has decided to balance things out by borrowing and transposing the missing four-bar fragment. You can hear the effect at 01’ 38” and 08’ 03” in the track streamed below.

For Lugansky, the First Sonata ‘is Rachmaninov’s most important big work for solo piano, completely different from the preludes and études-tableaux. You can compare the Second Sonata with the études. You can compare the Chopin Variations with the preludes. But the First Sonata is completely different.’ He continues: ‘It’s a cosmos, more than the human brain can countenance. The limits of the piano are almost not enough, because the substance of what happens is on another level.’ Lugansky makes the point that Rachmaninov did not give the first performance. That was undertaken in Moscow by Konstantin Igumnov, in October 1908. ‘It’s difficult to imagine how [Igumnov] could have performed such a work,’ Lugansky remarks. ‘It has wonderful lyrical moments as every piece of Rachmaninov does. There are fantastic melodic things, but there’s also a brutal force that’s inhuman. It’s like a force of nature, like God destroying something. It’s stronger than human will.’ 

The Faust legend lies at the back of the First Sonata, with Faust himself, Gretchen and Mephistopheles generally regarded as the inspiration for the three movements, although, as Lugansky says, ‘Rachmaninov’s treatment is never black and white’. There seems to be no doubt about the implication of the ending, however. ‘This is a very Russian conclusion to Faust,’ says Lugansky. ‘Goethe brings Faust to Paradise, but Rachmaninov cannot forgive. The D minor tonality is the same as when Don Giovanni goes to Hell in Mozart’s opera. It’s extremely brutal in the sonata.’ Hence the inexorable tread and pull of the Dies irae and the need for that calamitous crescendo. But does knowing the Faust legend help Lugansky with his interpretation? ‘I think yes, but not directly,’ he answers. ‘Music is like life. Thoughts do influence life, but not 100 per cent. The Faust legend might influence me in what I think and feel, but in the event the music itself will give the public a far bigger picture.'

Lugansky heard the original version of the Second Sonata only in 2000, before which he had always played the revised one. ‘I was a little bit upset that I hadn’t done the [first version] before,’ he says, ‘because I came to like it more and more.’ Yet neither version is entirely satisfactory. Rachmaninov revised the sonata because, as he told his friend Alfred Swan, it was too long and ‘so many voices are moving simultaneously’, comparing it unfavourably with Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata, in the same key as his own. In the process of reworking the piece, he not only thinned out the textures but also took a blue pencil to some large swathes of music, notably in the finale where the structural cohesion is crucially undermined. Lugansky has his own ideas as to why Rachmaninov did it. ‘The reason is very simple,’ he says. ‘He had to study a new recital programme for America in 1931, and needed to decide what to play. He often played preludes and études-tableaux, but he wanted to do something else. He never played the First Sonata after 1917, so why not the Second? But when he looked at the score, he realised he needed time to prepare it, and he was familiar with the American public, who would certainly be a little bit bored with a 25-minute sophisticated work. So the revised version was more practical, easy for him to prepare, easier for the public.’ 

This was the same Rachmaninov who was guided by the audience’s coughing when he performed the Corelli Variations in America, leaving out variations when he judged that the boredom threshold had been reached. ‘You must not omit a single note from the Corelli Variations,’ asserts Lugansky, commenting on the score’s poised classical proportions. And for much the same reason he has now opted for the original version of the Second Sonata. Vladimir Horowitz famously devised a hybrid of the two versions, and other pianists have come to their own conclusions about what to do. Lugansky, with that characteristic aspiration to find the essence of what he is performing, plays ‘all the music’, but, he continues, ‘If there are alternatives [between the two versions], I play what my heart, my brain and my taste tell me.’