Sunday, 21 July 2013

Review: Rachmaninov - Preludes, Musical Moments - Lugansky - 2000, Erato

Already a classic in the Rachmaninoff discography?

I simply cannot believe that this recording, now more than a decade old, has been reviewed so little on the Web; there are but seven reviews on Amazon, and at the time when the following review was originally written there was exactly one. It deserves so much more than that. If it is not already a classic, it will certainly become one. At least it should.

Nikolay Lugansky (b. 1972) is that rare type of pianist whose technique is prodigious but never stands in the way of mature musicianship; the latter is quite amazing considering that he was but 28 years old at the time of this recording. The sheer drive and crispness of Lugansky's rendition of the G minor prelude (Op. 23 No. 5) blows completely away Ashkenazy's cautious recording on DECCA; he is also more dashing than his illustrious predecessor in other more explicitly virtuoso preludes such as Op. 23 Nos. 2 and 7, though his interpretation of the famous C sharp minor prelude (Op. 3 No. 2) is not quite as majestic. The amazing thing about Lugansky is that he is impeccable at all fronts. He never rushes or rapes the music, his tempi are perfect, and his sense for the delicate nuances of Rachmaninoff's piano writing seems unerring. The most lyrical among the preludes here – Nos. 1, 4 and 10 – come off every bit as tender and poetic, full of wistful melancholia, as they do under Ashkenazy's fingers. In short, this is a truly stupendous rendition of Rachmaninoff's 10 Preludes Op. 23 and the famous Prelude Op. 3 No. 2: technical and musical tour de force of which I know no analogue in these pieces.

Too bad that Lugansky didn't record the 13 Preludes Op. 32 for this might have become a perfect alternative to Ashkenazy's complete set on DECCA. Still, there is a nice compensation. Rachmaninoff's six Musical Moments Op. 16 are fairly early compositions (they date from 1896 when the composer was but 23) and they are certainly uneven. But there are at least three masterpieces among them, and Lugansky's performances, I guarantee, will knock your socks off. Nos. 2 and 4 are broadly very similar; both require a left hand of inhuman independence and overall virtuosity that truly transcends any technical difficulties. Lugansky delivers the goods with gusto. He is no less spectacular conveying the indescribable sadness of No. 3, one of the most shattering pieces Rachmaninoff ever composed.

Fortunately, the sound is every bit as terrific as the playing – a rare occasion indeed. Recorded in 2000 in the Teldec studios in Berlin, this is a disc that may boast, not just a great dynamic range and exemplary clarity, but also a fine balance and a bass of remarkable depth. Definitely one of the finest Steinway on record I have ever heard, quite on par with, though very different than, Ashkenazy's sound on DECCA (who doesn't play Steinway, incidentally). It might well be a coincidence but Arcadi Volodos' recent Liszt recording was made in the same studios, too. May more pianists record at this place; it seems to help producing a marvellous imitation of a live sound.

Unfortunately, it seems that the career of Nikolay Lugansky has not progressed as fabulously since 2000 as this disc strongly suggests it should have. He has recorded a great deal of Rachmaninoff, including a set of the four concertos not nearly as fine as his preludes, and quite a bit of rather fascinating Chopin, including a stunning complete etudes on Erato in the same glorious sound as the present recording, but also some rather controversial recordings of other pieces; his Beethoven is indifferent, his Liszt even more so.

Rachmaninoff's solo piano music, it seems, is Lugansky's forte, yet he has recorded very little of it during the last decade. Pity. However, his early recording (1992) of the complete etudes is difficult to find but well worth searching, for it is quite an achievement for a lad of 20. The original edition (by same obscure fellows Challenge Classics) is a bit too expensive, but Brilliant have reissued the recording at a very reasonable price (though coupled with Marietta Petkova's timid preludes). Lugansky’s equally early recording of the Second Sonata – and equally fine for so tender an age – has also been released at budget price by Piano Classics. It makes for a revealing comparison with his recent recording of the same piece (but this time in its original version); as a special bonus, you get a terrific rendition of Rachmaninoff’s vastly under-recorded First Sonata.

Anyway, whatever the vicissitudes of Lugansky's career and the vagaries of his artistic inclinations, this particular recording for Erato still remains an outstanding achievement that easily ranks among the finest renditions on record of Rachmaninoff's first 11 preludes and all of his Musical Moments. Such technical prowess coupled with so fine a musicianship, and splendidly recorded at that, is not something the piano lover often finds on record, even in the era of digital wonders today. The only thing Lugansky can, occasionally and slightly, be accused of is imitation of Ashkenazy in terms of interpretation. Well, he might have chosen a much worse example. If individuality means messing up Rachmaninoff's preludes as Weissenberg does on RCA, I will pass.

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