Chopin; Brahms: Klavierstücke Op.118; Liszt: Sposalizio, 3 Transcendental Etudes

Nikolai Lugansky

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 12 January 2011 4 stars

Nikolai Lugansky There was something of the 'Piano Favourites' about this recital, mixing shorter works by Chopin, Brahms and Liszt. In the remarkably athletic hands of Nikolai Lugansky, however, there was little about it that was predictable or run-of-the-mill. And to describe the Russian virtuoso as a cool customer simply doesn't do justice to the apparent effortlessness with which he rattles off the more technically challenging pieces—and it doesn't get much more technically challenging than the three Transcendental Études with which he concluded his programme.

The all-Chopin first half kicked off with the F-major Nocturne Op.15 No.1, an early test for Lugansky's cantabile touch. The clarity of his veiled textures was impressive, while there was something hypnotic in the relation between his hands, the dreamy and lazy right gently nudged along by the left. The F-minor Fantasie followed, with Lugansky's subtle performance reluctant to elucidate the work's enigmatic nature. There was more pensiveness in a delicately turned account of the C-sharp minor prélude Op.45, before Lugansky turned to the fourth Scherzo. Keeping his cards close to his chest in the opening skirmishes, the technique was soon let loose, dancing with mercurial lightness and breathtaking velocity across the keyboard. Avoiding drawing any percussive sounds from the piano, Lugansky kept the sonorities a touch subdued, but there was passion in the slower central section and a great deal of excitement elsewhere.

His final slow number was the Nocturne in D flat, Op.27 No.2. This was perhaps the most seductive performance of the first half, where veiled cantabile and clarity united with the most sensitive of touches. For much of the so-called 'Heroic' Polonaise that followed, Lugansky was predictably self-effacing. The main theme's first appearance was fleet-footed and rhythmically precise, while the cavalry of the central section stampeded as quickly as I've heard, but remained in the muted middle-distance—a stunning technical feat. There was perhaps a lack of rhetorical largesse, but this was a refreshing take on an old war-horse.

Lugansky is not as well known for his Brahms as his is for other staples of the Romantic repertoire, but after the interval he brought the same admirable attributes to the composer's Op.118 Klavierstücke. These innocuously titled but evasive works make rather different interpretational demands on the performer, though, and Lugansky's readings were rather 'straight'. Despite all the virtuosity, musicality and clarity, I missed the tension that others find in the works. And while it's too easy to fall back on the biographical cliché of the older Brahms as all beard, repression and exertion, in this case the music does seem to call out for a bit more huff and puff to contrast with its moments of delicacy and beauty. That said, there was still a great deal to enjoy: the clarity of the first 'Intermezzo', for example, the gentle tenderness of the second, or the singing line of the 'Romanze'.

With Liszt, however, we were back on surer ground, and the final four works on the programme – 'Spozalizio' from the Italian Année de pèlerinage and the three final Transcendental Études – arguably saw Lugansky's technique and temperament find their ideal home. In the first piece, the pianist's airy textures were matched by a Romantic sweep that avoided over-emphasis. Lugansky upped the ante with the etudes, however, where his sheer facility was jaw-dropping, allowing him to place the music – and, like Chopin's studies, there is fabulous music here – ahead of those transcendental technical demands. Having chosen to perform the pieces in reverse order, we started with a shimmering 'Chasse Neige', building to a shattering climax, followed by a delicately passionate account of 'Harmonies du soir'. In the fearsome F-minor tenth study some chinks in the cool facade started to show: it was not that Lugansky was taxed technically, but the demands made on him brought out some of the fire and abandon that had been missing elsewhere in the evening. It was thrilling.

I was quietly hoping he might give us more Liszt as an encore, but there was nevertheless a lot to enjoy in the Rachmaninoff G-major prelude he did perform, followed by Chopin's Fantasie-Improptu as dazzling perpetuum mobile. A very fine, interesting recital.  

By Hugo Shirley