Monday, 22 July 2013

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

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)

Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 [1931 version]
[1] I. Allegro agitato [8’33]
[2] II. Non allegro [6’30]
[3] III. Allegro molto [5’14]

[4] Moment musical, Op. 16 No. 2 [3’10]
[5] Lilacs, Op. 21 No. 5 [2’49]
[6] Polichinelle, Op. 3 No. 4 [3’37]
[7] Lullaby (Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninoff) [5’15]
[8] Scherzo (Mendelssohn-Rachmaninoff) [3’45]

Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 [20’15]
[9]-[31] Theme – Variations 1-13 – Intermezzo – Variations 14-20 – Coda

Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Recorded: 26/28 January 1993, Doopsgezinde Kerk, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Piano Classics, 2011. 59’15*. Liner notes by Ronald Vermeulen.

*Wrongly given on the back cover: 71’35.


Warning: the young Lugansky is dangerous for your speakers!

This is a re-issue of what was 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 these pieces (the Musical Moment and the Corelli Variations).

Let me first warn you to be careful with the volume control. The sound is quite amazing. Seldom have I heard such crashing bass, yet never too loud to obscure the treble. The sonority has beautiful depth and presence, but the tone is warm and natural. Considering all that, a few bits of displaced furniture is a small price to pay. But the real reason to get that disc is Nikolai 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 superior artistry, and Lugansky delivers the goods splendidly. He doesn’t have the intensity of Horowitz, 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, not to mention Lugansky himself 11 years later, puts a stiff competition.

The five bonus pieces consist of two original compositions and three highly imaginative transcriptions. Coincidentally or not, all five were recorded by Rachmaninoff himself. Formidable competition indeed!

The Musical Moment (Op. 16 No. 2) shows off Lugansky’s devastating left hand, but it must be said that wailing melody is right one is better handled in his later recording. 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 his control is extraordinary and by no means unmusical. In terms of crisp articulation, though not necessarily in purely musical terms, this is one of those rare cases when even Rachmaninoff’s own recording pales in comparison.

The original edition is completely out of print, of course, and all fans of Lugansky and Rachmaninoff 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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