Sunday, 21 July 2013

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

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)

[1] Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2 [4’37]

10 Preludes, Op. 23
[2] No. 1 in F sharp minor [3’26]
[3] No. 2 in B flat major [3’26]
[4] No. 3 in D minor [3’34]
[5] No. 4 in D major [4’36]
[6] No. 5 in G minor [3’12]
[7] No. 6 in E flat major [2’24]
[8] No. 7 in C minor [3’12]
[9] No. 8 in A flat major [3’34]
[10] No. 9 in E flat minor [1’45]
[11] No. 10 in G flat major [4’26]

6 Moments musicaux, Op. 16
[12] No. 1 in B flat minor [7’23]
[13] No. 2 in E flat minor [2’59]
[14] No. 3 in B minor [4’41]
[15] No. 4 in E minor [2’52]
[16] No. 5 in D flat major [4’01]
[17] No. 6 in C major [5’01]

Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Recorded: 18-22 September 2000, Teldec Studio, Berlin.

Erato, 2001. 65’28. Liner notes by Catherine Steinegger.


I find it hard to believe that this recording, now some seventeen years old, has been so little reviewed on the Web. There are currently but eight reviews on – an old version of this one included. When the latter was originally written in 2011, when this recording was already a decade old, there was only one review. That’s a shame. It deserves so much more than that. If it is not already a classic, it will certainly become one. At least it should.

Nikolai 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 the G minor prelude (Op. 23 No. 5) blow 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 nuance 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 recording. Technical and musical tour de force with very little competition in the recording catalogues.

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. Nos. 2 and 4 are broadly very similar, short and wild. Both require left hand of inhuman independence and the ability to sing some haunting themes with the right one. No. 3 is a slow piece of indescribable sadness, one of the most shattering pieces Rachmaninoff ever composed. Lugansky delivers the goods with gusto. His performances, I guarantee, will knock your socks off in Nos. 2 and 4 and make you cry in No. 3.

Fortunately, the sound is every bit as terrific as the playing – a rare occasion indeed. Great dynamic range and fantastic clarity are good enough, but they are much better combined with impeccable balance and remarkable depth. 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 then. It seems to help producing a marvellous imitation of a live sound.

Unfortunately, it seems that the career of Nikolai Lugansky has not progressed as fabulously since 2000 as this album strongly suggested it would. He has recorded a great deal of Rachmaninoff, including a set of the four concertos not nearly as fine as the solo piano works, and quite a bit of rather fascinating Chopin, including the complete etudes on Erato in the same glorious sound, 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, though difficult to find, is 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 stunning 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 temperament, this particular recording 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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