CD Review: Chopin: Sonata No. 3

Nikolai Lugansky (Onyx)

11 November 2011 2 stars

Chopin LuganskyPiano Sonata No. 3 in B minor represents for many the most perfect example of musical creativity and bold originality that can be found in Chopin's large-scale musical structures.   The work holds together as one great, sweeping pianistic statement, but overflows with musical imagination: from the majestic Allegro Maestoso to the dazzling scherzo, the melodic Largo to the brilliant virtuosic Presto.  It is a work that requires both exceptional technical skill and colourful ingenuity.

Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky is certainly no stranger to this repertoire having previously recorded Chopin's Preludes, Ballades, Nocturnes and Etudes.  Famous for his seemingly effortless athletic performances, Lugansky rattles off this challenging work with apparent ease.  Undoubtedly an impressive feat, but I could not help feeling completely underwhelmed. 

Lugansky's piano skills are phenomenal and he appears completely in control throughout, but that is it.  His exceptional technique makes little attempt to vary the sound quality, colour or bring to life the drama inherent in the music; instead his performance is simply a display of virtuosity.

As a result, the tension between the beautifully intimate and the 'chaotic' spirit of the music is lost in, rather than driven by, his technical skill. The surface is polished and immaculate, but Lugansky takes few risks producing a severe and laboured performance, with none of the thrills that Chopin's music invites.  The opening fireworks are measured and rather dull, and as the music dissolves into the fantasia-like section in D major, the rich harmonies vanish, starved of colour and imagination.  The Scherzo lacks wit, performed as a practice etude, with heavy accents rather than lightness of touch.  The vast potential of the long lyrical melodic lines in the bass and inner parts of the slow movement are devoid of tenderness, driven by pace rather that expression or coloured narrative.   In the turbulent concluding Presto, Lugansky displays his virtuosity once again, but his dazzling performance remains emotionally detached.

The remainder of the disc presents similar problems: the climaxes are overstated in Scherzo No. 4, the Nocturne is laboured, the Waltz is heavy and the F minor Fantasie has a steely, sober quality.  In the middle of all this, however, a glimmer emerges in Chopin's deeply expressive and evocative Prélude in C sharp minor.  Stripped bare of virtuosic display, Lugansky begins to capture the emotion that is deeply inherent in Chopin's music in the luxurious harmonies and modulations.  But it is too little too late: a disappointing recording from such an acclaimed pianist.

By Danielle Brown