Wednesday 12 January 2011

Nikolai Lugansky - Chopin, Brahms, and Liszt, 11 January 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Chopin – Nocturne in F major, op.15 no.1
Fantasia in F minor, op.49
Prelude in C-sharp minor, op.45
Scherzo no.4 in E major, op.54
Nocturne in D-flat major, op.27 no.2
Polonaise in A-flat major, op.53

Brahms – Six Piano Pieces, op.118

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage, Book II: ‘Italie’, S.161: ‘Sposalizio’
Etudes d’exécution transcendante, S.139, nos 12, 11, and 10

We heard a great deal of Chopin in 2010, his bicentenary, but Chopin is for every year – and for almost every pianist. Nikolai Lugansky did not always scale the heights of the most distinguished offerings from last year, but there was much to interest in the first half of this recital. The two Nocturnes, placed first and penultimate, shared many of the same virtues, notably a fine marriage between clarity and dreaminess. The subtlety of voicing in Lugansky’s left-hand ‘accompaniment’ to the F major Nocturnes was most striking too. Following that piece, we heard the F minor Fantasia. I confess that I find it hard to consider the piece one of Chopin’s most compelling when taken as a whole but it certainly has its moments. In Lugansky’s hands, one was well aware of its sectional structure, but that arguably goes with the territory. He certainly characterised the sections strongly, opening with charm yet possessed of considerable cumulative power. Nobility was allied to a beautiful legato touch, and to fullness of tone where required. The final bars were spellbinding. Then the C-sharp minor Prelude struck – or rather Lugansky did – an ideal balance between classical poise and Romantic sensibility: clarity without sounding cold. One could say much the same about much of the scherzo, though other sections were boldly rhetorical, and it certainly never sounded Classical in form. It was interesting at times to hear the incipient – arguably more than that – musico-dramatic side to Chopin: there were occasions when time almost but never quite stopped. In many ways, this was an impressive account, but I was not entirely convinced that it cohered. Finally, came a more ‘traditional’ sounding Polonaise, op.53: more rhythmically robust, boasting formidable cannon-fire, and yet flexible where the music demanded or suggested that.

Lugansky opened the second half with Brahms’s op.118 pieces. Again, there was much to admire here, but there was equally a nagging doubt that Brahms was not in every respect quite Lugansky’s thing. The opening Intermezzo set alarm bells ringing: in its brightness of tone, it simply did not sound dark enough for Brahms. Doubtless that is to some extent a personal judgement, but the tone quality sounded no different from Lugansky’s Chopin. The second, A major Intermezzo however, sounded serene, albeit with Brahms’s undercurrents properly telling, in no small measure thanks to Lugansky’s command of voice-leading and those inimitable cross-rhythms. Brahms’s fire of old sounded, yet aptly sounded of old, in the G minor Ballade, but again I missed the composer’s mahogany signature. Hints of strangeness in the fourth piece, the F minor Intermezzo, were most welcome: here we heard the ‘lateness’ of late Brahms, the proximity to the Second Viennese School, though the climax emerged a little congested. The outer sections of the F major Romanze sounded a similar note of serenity to those of the A major Intermezzo but the inner section seemed to skate over conflicts beneath the surface; Lugansky exhibited, however, a wonderful legato touch upon the return of the opening material. There was an apt sense of pervading quiet alienation to the final Intermezzo, though I wondered whether it were perhaps a little too distended.

I had no reservations whatsoever concerning the Liszt performances. First, Lugansky played the delightful Sposalizio. Here, by contrast with Brahms, the tone colour immediately and consistently sounded ‘right’. Lyrical phrasing matched and heightened a fine sense of structure. Climaxes were well shaped, likewise subsiding. More than once, I was reminded of how much Debussy owed Liszt, not least since there are passages that sound strikingly close to the Frenchman’s First Arabesque. Finally, we heard the three last Transcendental Studies, in reverse order. Technique was not an issue in the sense that so complete was the pianist’s command that he could put it to purely expressive means; nevertheless, from the opening of Chasse-neige, one could hardly fail to be impressed by such command as well as by the musicality of his response. Liszt the harmonic explorer and visionary was announced in Harmonies du soir. The F minor study showed, as indeed had its predecessors, that Lugansky fully had the measure of Liszt’s grand scale and grand style, without the slightest hint of posturing. Here was undeniably magnificent pianism.