Monday, 22 July 2013

Review: Lugansky at the Verbier Festival - 2008, DVD

Lugansky not quite at his best

This is a rather fascinating DVD which captures Nikolai Lugansky at the 2008 Verbier festival. He is at his absolute technical best, of course, but he is in the wrong repertoire. The program here, to begin with, is neither especially long (less than 80 minutes, encores and all), nor especially varied. It consists of one historical curiosity (Janacek) and few piano transcriptions from a famous ballet (Prokofieff), both twentieth century works, and a bunch of Romantic masterpieces, mostly Liszt plus some Chopin and Rachmaninoff as bonus. Sadly, Lugansky's playing is much more varied than the program.

This was my introduction to the music of Janacek whom I had hitherto known only as a name. It didn't leave the impression that I had missed something special. The Sonata with the enigmatic title ''1.X.1905'' is an interesting, curious work. It is very short, 11 or 12 minutes, and it has but two movements, both of which have significant titles: ''Premonition'' and ''Death''. The music is rather modern, with sparse melody and a good deal of dissonance, but it is appealing enough for a starter. I particularly liked the more tender second movement.

Prokofieff has never been my cup of tea but his ballet Romeo and Juliet is one of the exceptions. Unfortunately, Lugansky has chosen only six of the ten excerpts transcribed for solo piano from the orchestral original that comprise Prokofieff's Op. 75. This is for sure the highlight of the recital, such as it is. Lugansky excels in all pieces, and he is especially memorable in the most lyrical ones such the closing ''Farewell''. My only mild complaint here concerns the most famous of these piano transcriptions – ''Montagues and Capulets'' – where Lugansky plays the ''trombones'' much too quietly: it doesn't work especially well. Somehow I have the strange feeling that, much like Arcadi Volodos, Lugansky has a colossal technique and often plays extremely demanding works with great ease, but he is really at his best in the most lyrical moments of them: the middle section of ''Montagues and Capulets'' is fabulously done.

Lugansky's Liszt is what downgrades this recital to four stars. The beginning was quite promising, if not exactly memorable. The two pieces from the ''Italian Year'' of Annees de Pelerinage are among Liszt's most tender and poetic works, and Lugansky plays both ''Sposalizio'' and ''Sonetto del Petrarca 123'' beautifully. In the former he slows down rather dangerously at few places, but he avoids the perverse dullness of Lazar Berman in his complete recording for DG; as for the latter, it is a nice touch to play it instead of the much more popular, not to say hackneyed, 104th sonnet. However, the four Transcendental Studies are all disappointing mixed bags, for they all combine sensitive playing in the more lyrical passages with ugly rush and banging in the climaxes. ''Chasse-Neige'' (No. 12) and No. 10 (titleless) are probably the finest of the bunch here, since Lugansky's playing is only occasionally marred by really unnecessary exaggeration. ''Feux follets'' (No. 5) has some charming moments but many passages sound like a technical exercise, having nothing to do with the whimsical and mischievous quality that this study evokes in the right hands; the climax is ridiculously perfunctory and sloppy. Alas, the same is quite true about ''Harmonies du Soir'' (No. 11). Lugansky starts nicely enough, but then his technical prowess gets the better (or the worse) of him: the climax of the piece is pure travesty, abominably fast and totally ruined. It must have been a shock for Lugansky too, for he didn't recover until the end of the piece.

I used to be baffled that the crispness and clarity, to say nothing of musicality, of Lugansky's Chopin and Rachmaninoff seem to vanish into thin air when he turns to Liszt. Then I read an interview with him from which it was clear that he holds Liszt in low esteem, apparently being victim of the old hokum about the duality of his nature which is supposed to be a combination of ''Mephistopheles and Abbe'', ''Charlatan and Prophet'' and other nonsense like that. Small wonder that such attitude would result in unsatisfactory performances. If he could look at Liszt with as little prejudice as at Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Lugansky would surely turn into a Liszt interpreter of the first order. Right now, thanks to these four Transcendental Studies, he looks like a little more than a crass banger. His two wonderful ''Italian'' pieces are by no means good enough to rectify this. I don't know if it is just a coincidence, but during Liszt's works Lugansky's mild physical mannerisms at the keyboard seem to get aggravated.

There are four encores and they are surely the best of the whole DVD. Chopin's Etude Op. 10 No. 8 and Rachmaninoff's rousing Prelude in G minor Op. 23 No. 5 are charmingly different than Lugansky's studio recordings but tremendously effective nonetheless. The beautiful thing about the Chopin's etude is that Lugansky forces you to notice that wonderful cornucopia of melodies in the left hand which is usually lost in the glittering figurations of the right hand when this etude is played by fabulous technicians who are inferior musicians. As for the G minor prelude, it is safe to say that Lugansky plays this extremely popular piece better than any other living pianist, both technically and musically. He generates a tremendous excitement from the march-like sections, played with astonishing clarity, and his middle section is almost unbearably beautiful. Indeed, it's saying a great deal that Lugansky's interpretation can hardly be mistaken for anybody else's – quite an achievement in a piece of such fame. The other two encores are Rachmaninoff's preludes Op. 32 Nos. 5 and 12, both of which, so far as I know, Lugansky has never recorded in studio. I hope he soon will. They prove yet again, if any further proof is needed, that Rachmaninoff is certainly Lugansky's forte, as are more introverted and poetic works.

The sound is an ordinary stereo but it is quite good enough to enjoy Lugansky's artistry to the full. The picture quality is also very fine, the camera work rather less so. The concert was shot is a small and very dark place that looks more like a cave than like a concert hall. Besides, the direction is not top-notch either; there are many shots too distant to appreciate Lugansky's devilishly precise hands, and many of the close ones are taken from awkward angles. All in all, visually the production is rather mediocre. Perhaps one is not unjust to expect more from what is considered one of the most prestigious musical festivals in Europe.

There are no additional materials except few stingily short trailers from DVDs with highlights from other editions of the festival. Among the things worth seeing on these miserably short excerpts is Yuja Wang's stupendously fast and unbelievably accomplished performance of Cziffra's horrendously difficult transcription of ''The Flight of the Bumblebee'' and Kissin's butchering the finale of Horowitz's ''Carmen Variations''. Especially the latter could certainly use less speed and more musicianship – but then, so could the former. Why so many pianists mistake showpieces with technical exercises is a mystery to me. The former, in addition to being technically demanding, quite often have a good deal of intrinsic value as light entertainment, while the latter does not necessarily possess anything of the kind. Listening to Wang and Kissin, banging furiously the keyboard, one would never guess that the ''Carmen Variations'' have a good deal of mischievous charm, still less that the ''Bumblebee'' is a marvellously evocative tone poem.

In short, entertaining and enjoyable DVD but, after a few watchings, quite dispensable as well. Except for the encores and, to some extent, Prokofieff's music and the first two of Liszt's pieces, the rest of the recital is hardly Lugansky at his best, musically at all events. I wish next time he would record an all-Rachmaninoff recital, for this is sure to turn out a lot better than the present one. If not, he might think of making his program longer and more varied; inclusion of more Chopin and Rachmaninoff, for instance, would be most welcome. It would also help if he changes the director and the recording venue.

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