Monday, 22 July 2013

Review: Rachmaninoff - Sonata No. 2, Corelli Variations - Lugansky - 1993, Challenge Classics

Warning: the young Lugansky is dangerous for your speakers!

This CD is a re-issue of a recording made in January 1993 in Amsterdam and originally released by Challenge Classics. Two things are immediately fascinating: 1) Lugansky was but 20 years old at the time; and 2) a decade or so later, he re-recorded for Erato/Warner two of the pieces of this disc (the Musical Moment and the Corelli Variations).

Let me first warn you to be careful with the volume control. The sound here is quite amazing indeed. Seldom have I heard such crashing bass, yet never too loud to obscure the high register. The sonority is beautifully deep, the tone is warm and perfectly natural. Considering all that, some displaced furniture is a small price to pay. But the real reason to get this disc, especially at such a terrifically low price, is Lugansky himself.

That a youth of 20 could play Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata with such combination of musicality and bravura all but defies belief. It is only too easy, especially for an eager youngster with colossal technique, to make a hash out of such daunting work, turning it into a cheap show-off. Not Lugansky. If anything, he clearly shows that the tons of negative criticism as regards the musical value of the sonata are hokum. This is a magisterial work that requires a great deal more than stupendous technique, namely a superior artistry, and Lugansky delivers the goods splendidly. He doesn't have Horowitz's intensity, certainly, but he neither rushes the music, as Weissenberg often does, nor stumbles badly here and there as it happens with Ashkenazy. My top prize for the most sensitive interpretation of Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata still goes to Vesselin Stanev, but Lugansky is a sure runner-up; and sonically, as a matter of fact, he is way more impressive than Stanev. The Corelli Variations are equally mind-blowing, technically and musically, though here Ashkenazy puts a stiff competition.

The five bonus pieces consist of two original compositions and three highly imaginative transcriptions. The Musical Moment Op. 16 No. 2 demonstrates Lugansky's absolutely devastating left hand as well as his impeccable handling of those plaintive, melancholic and brooding melodic lines so characteristic of Rachmaninoff. The mischievous outer parts of Polichinelle Op. 3 No. 4 are a trifle rushed and lack the character of Rachmaninoff's own fabulous recording, but the lyrical middle section is miraculous. The two song transcriptions (Rachmaninoff's own ''Lilacs'' and Tchaikovsky's melting ''Lullaby'') are played with all the grace, charm and delicacy required to make them sound as the masterpieces they are. As for the notoriously difficult transcription of Mendelssohn's Scherzo from his incidental music to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, well, this is a blistering account that has to be heard to be believed. Lugansky takes the piece pretty fast, but with extraordinary control of every nuance. In terms of crispness and clarity, this is one of those rare cases when even Rachmaninoff's own recording pales in comparison.

As for the comparison between the two versions of the two pieces which Lugansky re-recorded later, this shows beyond doubt that his artistry was virtually fully formed in his early twenties – which is a much more unique phenomenon than his formidable technique. Certainly, he has developed since then, but not much. The astonishing thing is that there seems to be not much room for development, at least as far as the music of Rachmaninoff is concerned. I have recently heard Lugansky's exhilarating etude-tableaux, recorded in 1992 for the same label (though in Moscow), and I wish he would record them again for I believe his maturity might yield more profound interpretations. But I am not so sure about the Second Sonata. There is very little to improve here.

The original edition is completely out of print, of course, and all fans of Lugansky and all Rachmaninoff buffs should be grateful to Piano Classics for re-issuing this stupendous recording which ought to be on the shelves of every pianophile.

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