Clear ideas and Romantic fire

04.13.06
Nikolai Lugansky
The Globe & Mail

The youngish Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky played for Music Toronto Tuesday evening and surprised some of us by defining with considerable clarity and authority the large difference between Beethoven and Chopin and then, in a final fireworks display (his second and third encores), the ostensibly smaller but crucial difference between Chopin and Liszt.

Lugansky, now 34, made his Canadian debut in Toronto back in 1999, but I did not hear him then, and if the reactions of those who did hear him are to be credited, I'd guess he has done quite a lot of thinking and maturing in the past seven years. His vaunted technical prowess seemed not to have lessened on Tuesday, but it was much more at the service of a considerable musical intelligence than I had been led to expect.

Lugansky opened his recital with a pair of Beethoven sonatas chosen from the very middle of the canon: the brilliantly inventive and playful G Major, Op. 31, No. 1, and the deeper and more serious D Minor ("Tempest"), Op. 31, No. 2.

Lugansky did not only match, move for move, Beethoven's endlessly resourceful musical invention, with apt gradations of touch and a vivid sense of the music's dramatic nature and specific momentums. He also kept a firm and lucid overarching sense of each movement in itself and of its place in the larger scheme of the sonata.

This was Olympian Beethoven-playing: crystalline, vigorous, eloquent and superbly thought through. It may have been too clear, too studied for some tastes of a more mystical persuasion, but I was grateful for its reminder to us that the piano sonatas were Beethoven's idea workshops and his laboratory for the testing of those rhythmic and tonal juxtapositions that form the basis of his epoch-making musical structures. I suppose it would have made the recital too long, but I wish that Lugansky had played all three of the Op. 31 sonatas for us. As it was, the D Minor - the "Tempest" - was the musical high point of the evening. But the beautiful E-flat Sonata, third in the opus, might have exploited Lugansky's clear-eyed approach even more effectively.

After intermission, Lugansky devoted himself to Chopin, principally the Third Sonata (B Minor, Op. 58) - but he eased us in with the luscious and subtly flavoured solitary Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45.

Here, more than in the Beethoven, he seemed determined to demonstrate that he could be less the efficient musical machine and more in touch with his emotions and his ruminative and rhapsodic leanings.

The Prelude set up this difference nicely and the Sonata carried it through convincingly after some problems in the first movement. That movement itself has always been a particular challenge. Its harmonically murky middle development needs clarification of an extraordinarily subtle and spacious kind, which it almost never gets and which Lugansky was no better able to supply than most, in spite of his strong thinking in the Beethoven. This was a pity because the rest of the movement was lovely, and the Scherzo, Largo and Finale were free, idiomatic and very gorgeous, a triumph of the Romantic ideal.

The first encore, Chopin again, was the limpid little first of the Trois Nouvelles Etudes, seldom played but a pleasant wind-down after the tumultuous sonata finale.

Then, in the next two encores, came Lugansky's crisp definition of the diametrically different virtuosities of Chopin and Liszt: first Chopin's magical Etude in F, Op. 10, with its dazzling shot-silk right-hand-arpeggios on the seventh chord over a jaunty four-to-the-bar in the bass. Liszt's Transcendental Etude on Paganini's caprice La Campanella was a glittering display of quite another sort: variations of increasingly steely pianistic lace with tinsel frosting, dauntingly impressive and quite coolly designed to catapult audiences to their feet, clapping, stomping and bellowing. Lugansky played both to a fare-thee-well, their differences like day and night, but both hugely popular with his audience.