Monday, 22 July 2013

Review: Lugansky at the Verbier Festival - 2008, DVD

Nikolai Lugansky

Live at the Verbier Festival

Leoš Janáček (1854–1928)
Sonata “1.X.1905”
I. The Presentiment [5:11]
II. The Death [6:37]

Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Romeo and Juliet: Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 75
No. 5: Masks [2:05]
No. 6: The Montagues and the Capulets [3:39]
No. 7: Friar Laurence [2:00]
No. 8: Mercutio [2:00]
No. 9: Dance of the Girls with Lilies [1:55]
No. 10: Romeo Bids Juliet Farewell [6:53]

Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Années de Pèlerinage: Italie, S. 161
No. 1 Sposalizio [7:41]
No. 6 Sonetto 123 del Petrarca [6:01]
Etudes d’exécution transcendante, S. 139
No. 12: Chasse-neige [5:13]
No. 5: Feux follets [3:29]
No. 11: Harmonies du soir [7:35]
No. 10: in F minor [4:35]

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Prelude in G major, Op. 32 No. 5 [2:45]

Frederic Chopin (1810–1849)
Etude in F major, Op. 10 No. 8 [2:02]

Sergei Rachmaninov
Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5 [3:37]
Prelude in G sharp minor, Op. 32 No. 12 [2:17]

Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Recorded live: 28 July 2008, Église de Verbier, Switzerland.

Medici Arts International, 2009. 79 min. NTSC 16:9. Colour. PCM Stereo.


This is a rather fascinating DVD which captures Nikolai Lugansky at the 15th edition of the 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 (Janáček), a few piano transcriptions from a famous ballet (Prokofiev), both twentieth century works, and a bunch of Romantic masterpieces, mostly Liszt plus some Chopin and Rachmaninoff as a bonus. Sadly, Lugansky’s playing is much more varied than the program.

This was my introduction to the music of Janáček 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: “The Premonition” and “The Death”. The music is rather modern, with more dissonance than melody, but it is appealing enough for a starter. I particularly liked the more tender second movement.

Prokofiev 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 Prokofiev’s Op. 75. This is for sure the highlight of the recital, such as it is. Lugansky excels in all pieces, but he is especially memorable in the most lyrical ones such as the closing “Farewell”. My only mild complaint concerns the most famous of these piano transcriptions – “The Montagues and the Capulets” – where Lugansky plays the “trombones” very quietly: it doesn’t work especially well. 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. The wistful middle section of “The Montagues and the Capulets” is fabulous.

Lugansky’s Liszt is what downgrades this recital. The beginning was rather promising, if not exactly memorable. The two pieces from the “Italian Year” of Années de Pèlerinage, “Sposalizio” and “Sonetto del Petrarca 123”, are among Liszt’s most tender and poetic works, and Lugansky plays both of them with commendable degree of tenderness and poetry. He slows down rather dangerously in “Sposalizio”, but he avoids Lazar Berman’s perverse dullness. As for the “sonetto”, it is a nice touch to play it instead of the much more popular, not to say hackneyed, No. 104. 

However, the four Transcendental Studies are all disappointing mixed bags. They combine sensitive playing in the more lyrical passages with ugly rushing and banging in the climaxes. “Chasse-neige” and No. 10 (titleless) are probably the finest of the bunch, since Lugansky’s playing is only occasionally marred by really unnecessary exaggeration. “Feux follets” has some charming moments but many passages sound like a technical exercise, having nothing to do with the whimsical 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”. Lugansky starts nicely enough, but then his technical prowess gets the better (or the worse) of him: the climax 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 old hokum like “Mephistopheles and Abbé”, “Charlatan and Prophet” and so and so forth. Small wonder that such an attitude would result in poor performances. If he could look at Liszt with as little prejudice as at Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Lugansky would surely turn into a Lisztian of the first order. Right now, thanks to these four Transcendental Studies, he is little more than a crass banger. The decent “Italian” pieces are by no means good enough to rectify this. I don’t know if it is just a coincidence, but during the Transcendental Studies Lugansky’s mild physical mannerisms seem to get aggravated.

There are four encores and they are surely the best things on this DVD. Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 8 and Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23 No. 5 are charmingly different than Lugansky’s studio recordings but tremendously effective nonetheless. In the Chopin, Lugansky forces you to notice the melodic richness in the left hand which is usually lost in the glittering figurations of the right when this etude is played by fabulous technicians but inferior musicians. 

As for the G minor prelude, it is safe to say that Lugansky plays this extremely popular piece better, both technically and musically, than any other living pianist. He generates 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 that of anybody else – quite an achievement in a piece of such fame. 

The other two encores are Rachmaninoff’s preludes Op. 32 Nos. 5 and 12, neither of which, so far as I know, Lugansky has never recorded in the studio. I hope one day he will. Both prove yet again, if any further proof is needed, that Rachmaninoff is certainly Lugansky’s forte, as are more introverted and poetic works in general.

The sound is an ordinary stereo but quite good enough to enjoy the music. The picture quality is also very fine, the camera work rather less so. The concert was shot is a very dark place that looks more like a cave than a concert hall. 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-ups 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 a few stingily short trailers from other DVDs from the festival. Among the things worth seeing, if not hearing, are Yuja Wang’s stupendously fast and unbelievably ugly performance of Cziffra’s transcription of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” and Kissin’s butchering the finale of Horowitz’s “Carmen Variations”. Both could certainly use less speed and more music. Why so many pianists take showpieces for 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 “Carmen Variations” have a lot of mischievous charm, still less that “Bumblebee” is a marvellously evocative tone poem. 

In short, entertaining and enjoyable DVD, but not very memorable; after a few visits, it becomes dispensable. Except for the encores and, to some extent, the Prokofiev and the first two Liszt pieces, the rest 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. If not, he might think of making his program longer and more varied; inclusion of more Chopin and Rachmaninoff, for instance, would be welcome. It would also help if he changed the director and the venue.

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