Nikolai Lugansky, the Russian pianist perform at Orchestra Hall Sunday in a varied program which included Cesar Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Prokofieff's Fourth Sonata, and Rachmaninoff's Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32. The first half of the program consisting of the Franck and Prokofieff, which, though technically perfect, and certainly possessing nuance and subtlety, was quite frankly, (no pun intended) somewhat boring. After hearing Lugansky's technically perfect rendition of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto last season with the CSO, which was cold and detached in interpretation and delivery, I was expecting and rather hoping to hear more in his solo recital. At the outset it was clear that Lugansky was delivering more emotional expression in his playing and in his physical involvement at the piano. ( I suppose he may have read some reviewers' comments and took them to heart). Although the opening Prelude offered much subtlety and nuance, the arpeggiation figure which predominates in this opening section lacked the churning, restless feel that is needed to propel the movement and create some excitement. The Chorale was beautiful paced and well-voiced, but the concluding Fugue somehow lacked the big swells and climax at the end that one would expect from a major Romantic composer. It seemed as if Lugansky was performing Franck as if he were that composer's countryman- Claude Debussy. Somehow, I accepted this interpretation, figuring the pianist would display a different, contrasting character in terms of tone, and style in the Prokofieff Sonata, but he did not. Lugansky's Prokofieff Fourth Sonata was definitely of the more introspective and subtle performances. Granted, even the program notes indicate stated in a quote from Prokofieff's biographer, Israel Nestyev:
"The charm of the sonata lies in its thoughtful, restrained, narrative tone. He we find neither mirthful gaiety, nor nervous frenzy; although an agitated feeling prevails in the first movement, it is not intensely dramatic, but restrained....After the thoughtful introspection of the slow movement, the finale comes as a vibrant affirmation of the vital spirit of life and a brilliant tour de force of keyboard virtuosity."
In a big hall like Symphony Center, such subtlety can be problematic for projection and overall sonority. I somehow did not feel the "brilliant tour-de-force" Finale fulfilled on the expectations. This sonata, following the Franck, proved to be somewhat deadly programming, and I found myself almost falling asleep. Indeed, some people even left at Intermission.
Those who stayed for the second half, however, were richly rewarded. The second half of the program, Rachmaninoff's Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32, were marvelous- simply exquisite playing- musically and technically, and definitely more exciting. My personal favorites from this recital were the the Preludes in E minor, E major, B minor, B major and G-sharp minor. Lugansky is a pianist who excels in virtuosic repertoire, because he has a flawless technique- but he seems to play without any sense of virtuosic "style" or ego- even in the Rachmaninoff. He possesses none of the showiness or temperment one might expect from a pianist who favors this type of repertoire. But, after hearing this recital I have concluded that Lugansky is a very cerebral pianist- somewhat like Andras Schiff- who plays the romantic repertoire with that same degree of intellect and intimacy- drawing his listeners in without overpowering them. It comes as no surprise that most of Lugansky's successes have been from his recordings, which I imagine are quite excellent and I look forward to exploring.
Lugansky played some fabulous encores- of particular note was his Chopin Etude in F major, with a fleetness and lightness of right hand fingerwork that seemed more Chopinesque than many pianists currently play this etude, and the Chopin Waltz in C-sharp minor- which was expressive and eloquent in every way. I must say, I have not heard these two Chopin pieces played more beautifully by anyone in recent years- live or on recording.
In short, Lugansky is a pianist who plays effortlessly and has a flawless technique. I have never witnessed a pianist who could perform all of Rachmaninoff's Preludes, Op. 32 or his Third Piano Concerto without breaking sweat, and for that reason alone, his playing is impressive. The true definition of a musical artist and intellectual, however, is one who can bring out the differences of style and character of the various composers presented on a program, and do so convincingly. Lugansky achieved greatness in his Rachmaninoff interpretation, but he must develop a better concept of stylistic differences to bring to bear with all of his repertoire, as the pianist Murray Perahia has done in his recitals at Symphony Center.
Summary: Perfect pianism but lacking in stylistic contrasts, consummate and superb Rachmaninoff, unconvincing Franck and Prokofieff. Worth hearing again.