Concert Review: Pianist Nikolai Lugansky at Orchestra Hall

Nikolai Lugansky
Chicago Tribune

By Alan G. Artner

Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky returned to Orchestra Hall on Sunday afternoon in a program of late 19th and early 20th Century virtuoso pieces that when listed together suggested almost too much sound and fury.

But Lugansky's poetic approach to the selections by Cesar Franck, Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninov withheld them from bombast through a stress-free virtuosity that smoothed every difficulty and, as a consequence, minimized physical excitement.

Cesar Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue benefited most from the pianist's caressing tone and hypersensitivity to dynamic markings. His variety of color and touch rightly set apart each of the sections with increasing purity after the more flexible, delicately scented opening. The 1884 work is not performed often enough nowadays to admit many comparisons, but Lugansky's account conveyed something of its hothouse atmosphere without getting soft-centered or clammy.

Prokofiev's Fourth Sonata, heard as rarely as the Franck, calls up a different world entirely. Completed in 1917, the piece gives plenty of opportunity for a sound more prickly and percussive. But Lugansky always seemed mindful that the composer had fashioned the piece from student compositions, so this was a lyrical performance that looked backward to an innocence that did not italicize modernity. Even when Prokofiev calls for a hurried or rash quality, as he does in the vigorous finale, Lugansky remained playful and scampering, avoiding tension.

Three of Rachmaninov's Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32 (1910), are well-known, having been played and recorded superlatively by the composer's greatest 20th Century exponents. One or two more occasionally turn up as encores, but the rest of them seldom appear on recitals, so gratitude to Lugansky again is in order for programming the entire set and presenting them without excess, swoon or thunder.

Accounts of the fast, dense pieces were warm and clear, never analytical or strident. Here Lugansky succeeded in making the thorniest technical difficulties sound easy, with air around each note and all crags leveled. Rhythms were firm and steady. Impetuousness was tightly controlled. But perhaps this was too much of a good thing. The excitement that comes in part from a performer struggling to overcome difficulty was absent.

Slower, more yielding works were, however, models of poise, complete with an essential ingredient in Rachmaninov – nostalgic yearning. These pieces easily can descend into sentimentality. Not this time. Lugansky was as careful spooning out sentiment as anything else, and he made the process sound so natural that the calculation behind it was not always apparent.

There were three encores, sensitively played and free of bathos: one of Edvard Grieg's "Lyric Pieces" (Op. 12, No. 1) plus Frederic Chopin's Etude, Op. 10, No. 8 and Waltz, Op. 64, No. 2.