Nikolai Lugansky Miracles at the Wigmore Hall

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Moments musicaux Op. 16 (1896) Moment musical in B flat minor Moment musical in E flat minor Moment musical in B minor Moment musical in E minor Moment musical in D flat Moment musical in C.
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 36 (1913)
I. Allegro agitato • II. Non allegro – Lento • III. Allegro molto
13 Preludes Op. 32 (1910)
Prelude in C • Prelude in B flat minor • Prelude in E • Prelude in E minor • Prelude in G • Prelude in F minor • Prelude in F • Prelude in A minor • Prelude in A • Prelude in B minor • Prelude in B • Prelude in G sharp minor •

Quite a phenomenal concert by Nikolai Lugansky in his series of complete Rachmaninov.Surely one of the most wondrous displays of piano playing this hall has ever seen. With his film star good looks music just poured out of him in a seemingly effortless mastery of control with a kaleidoscopic sense of colour that was at times truly breathtaking.A searing passion that never lost control of balance and sense of line the like of which I can only remember from Gilels’s performance of Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody in the Festival Hall fifty years ago.
I have often admired Lugansky for his superb musicianship allied to a strong personality.An artist who had something very individual to say without any distortions or betrayal of what the composer had placed on the printed page.
Tonight with his recreation of the Moments Musicaux op 16 and even more so with the original 1913 version of the Second Sonata I was aware of the gigantic stature of this great artist.The drive and seemingly endless resources of sumptuous sound were like being caught in a tornado that carried us all on a great wave of searing intensity …….and we were only at the interval …….the idea of the Preludes op 32 left me breathless with anticipation ……..Thirteen miniature tone poems each one with a story to tell.From the terrifying Red Riding Hood F minor with playing that sent a shiver down my spine.It followed on from the fluidity and sublime beauty of the Prelude in G major.How could one not be caught up in the growing sonorities of the B minor.’The return’ with a build up of burning intensity that was at the limit of bearable tension before the luminosity of the return of the opening and the sudden wave of an Adieux that dies away with an all so insistent murmur.A quite phenomenal control of sound that led equally miraculously into the famous G sharp minor prelude with its continuous wave of sounds and deep heart rending bass statements in reply to the luminosity and simplicity of the treble.A climax that disappeared into the distance with ringing bells and a final note that was placed with the perfection of a truly supreme stylist.
The grandeur and aristocratic control of the final D flat Prelude I doubt could have been more poignantly played even by Rachmaninov himself,who in Lugansky’s own words was the greatest piano virtuoso of the 2Oth century.
There is no doubt in my mind,after tonight’s performance,who holds that honour in the 21st century.
Great applause from a packed house but missing the standing ovation that was his due.
I think the ‘Wiggies’ accept Rachmaninov with reserve whereas Bach,Beethoven and Mozart are the stable diet of their favourites !!
I like to think that after tonight Rachmaniniv could stand side by side with the greatest of the musical geniuses of any age.
And what greater gift could there be for Rachmaninov’s 150th birthday?
There were two encores from a Lugansky with not a ‘hair out of place’ after a recital that could surely boast a record number of notes played in 90 minutes.
A beautiful nocturne type piece obviously early Rachmaninov and finally bursting into flames with his sumptuous ‘spinning song’ ,the C minor prelude op 23 .
I was brought up on Richter’s performance that I thought unmatchable …until tonight !

I am not sure if there was anyone in the audience who really knew what miracle we had witnessed tonight apart from yours truly.I had also been present at that other miraculous performance of a near blind Rubinstein in 1976 as he said goodbye to the concert stage.In his own words he had started his career in the Wigmore/Bechstein Hall and was happy to end it on the same stage that he hoped would be saved from imminent demolition. You see miracles do happen here!

By the fall of 1896, 23-year old Rachmaninoff’s financial status was precarious, not helped by his being robbed of money on an earlier train trip.Pressed for time, both financially and by those expecting a symphony, he “rushed into production.”On December 7, he wrote to Aleksandr Zatayevich,a Russian composer friend”I hurry in order to get money I need by a certain date … This perpetual financial pressure is, on the one hand, quite beneficial … by the 20th of this month I have to write six piano pieces.”Rachmaninoff completed all six during October and December 1896, and dedicated all to Zatayevich.Each Moment musical reproduces a musical form characteristic of a previous musical era. The forms that appear in Rachmaninoff’s incarnation are the nocturne,song without words, barcarolle,virtuoso etude and theme and variations.Andantino opens the set with a long, reflective melody that develops into a rapid climax.The second piece, Allegretto, is the first of the few in the set that reveal his mastery of piano technique.Andante cantabile is a contrast to its two surrounding pieces, explicitly named “funeral march “and “lament”Presto draws inspiration from several sources, including the Chopin preludes ,to synthesize an explosion of melodic intensity.The fifth, Adagio sostenuto is a respite in barcarolle form, before the finale Maestoso, which closes the set in a thick three-part texture.

Three years after his third piano concerto was finished, Rachmaninoff moved with his family to a house in Rome that Tchaikowsky had used.It was during this time in Rome that Rachmaninoff started working on his second piano sonata.However, because both of his daughters contracted typhoid fever, he was unable to finish the composition in Rome. Instead, Rachmaninoff moved his family on to Berlin in order to consult with doctors.When the girls were well enough, Rachmaninoff traveled with his family back to his Ivanovka country estate, where he finished the second piano sonata.Its premiere took place in Kursk on 18 October 1913 (5 October in the Julian calendar).When Rachmaninoff performed the piece at its premiere in Moscow, it was well received.However, Rachmaninoff himself was not satisfied with the work and felt that too much in the piece was superfluous.Thus, in 1931, he commenced work on a revision. Major cuts were made to the middle sections of the second and third movements and all three sections of the first movement, and some technically difficult passages were simplified.In 1940, with the composer’s consent, Vladimir Horowitz created his own edition which combined elements of both the original and revised versions.His edition used more original material than revised throughout all three movements.

These are the programme notes of Nikolai Lugansky – not only a great pianist : Moments musicaux is the third of Rachmaninov’s relatively small collection of piano pieces. The style belongs to his earlier creative period, when Tchaikovsky’s influence could still be felt.
I think the melodic lines of these ‘musical moments’, at least those in the minor keys, belong to a genre we might call ‘urban romance’. We hear the same language in many of Tchaikovsky’s works: music sung from the heart, from the depths of the soul, among the urban intelligentsia, the minor nobility.
The first Moment is the longest, a three-part piece with a sad, soulful motif. The mood is elegiac, with a small middle section in the major and a vanishing reprise. The second is exquisite, filled with tremulous intonations. The third is an elegy with a funereal rhythm. The fourth is the most popular; the continual turbulent movement of the sixteenths is borrowed from his early fugue in D minor, composed in 1891. There’s a resemblance to Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary’ Etude, but with a heightened dynamic and emotional temperature.
The fifth is a brief moment of happiness. One can hear distant bells, summer heat… It is a rare piece in the composer’s œuvre without drama or conflict, fully contemplative. Time stands still. The sixth is grandiose Rachmaninov, giving a full understanding of this titan of the piano. He uses expressive methods never deployed on such a scale before. Feelings of bubbling joy and triumph here evidence strength and youth, not overshadowed by defeat or loss.
The first version of the Second Sonata was created just before the First World War. It is this great artist’s premonition of the coming human tragedy and, particularly, the tragedy of his motherland.
In the first movement, the monothematicism is very developed; even the contrasting main and secondary themes are based on the same motifs. This chromatic descent becomes the main theme of the sonata – both in the first movement and in the finale.
The original version was written by Rachmaninov The Composer for Rachmaninov The Pianist, without thinking of other performers. The style is large scale, appropriate for the greatest piano virtuoso of the 20th Century. Though Rachmaninov played it often, other pianists were daunted by its technical difficulties. Thus, in 1931, the revised version was made. This edition was very popular in the USSR and was performed more often than the original.
Like most Soviet pianists, I first heard the sonata in its revised form. The original wasn’t performed in the Soviet Union until the 1960s when it was played by Van Cliburn, winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition. I only heard it after I had already played the revised version, but it impressed me a lot. I immediately wanted to play those fragments of beautiful music not included in the second version. There are episodes in the first movement that connect the secondary and final themes which are not only beautiful but carry an important formative load. The second movement consists of free variations on a melody in 12/8, with an improvisatory middle section. In the revised version, Rachmaninov created almost a wholly new middle section where the main motif of the first movement sounds like an idée fixe.
Both central episodes of this slow movement are wonderful in their own way. However, I prefer the original one – especially the movement’s end.
The finale is a kind of perpetuum mobile with a lyrical, sensual second theme which becomes the apotheosis of the sonata in the recapitulation. I believe these reductions of the revision to be the result of age, when Rachmaninov liked verbosity less and less.
The 13 Preludes form Rachmaninov’s most intense and complex cycle of piano miniatures. While preserving his own large-scale textures, there are changes of musical language rooted in the study of Russian chants. This connection with ancient Russian culture becomes very important in Preludes Nos. 4, 10 and 11, and can also be felt in Nos. 8, 9 and 13.
The cycle contains several peaks: the first four preludes can be played in a single block.

No. 1 is a rapid, joyful introduction. No. 2 is filled with a feeling of twilight, anxiety and fear. No. 3 echoes the Etude-tableau in E flat Op. 33 No. 6,
with its imagery of a bustling fair. No. 4 is the first culmination; for me, it conjures the
Battle of Kerzhenets in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, a dreadful battle in which the entire army is killed. The exposition and reprise are particularly diatonic (especially for a late- Romantic like Rachmaninov) and echo the language of the All-Night Vigil Op. 37.
The next five are on a less heavy scale, and perhaps do not carry such a philosophical load:
The famous No. 5 is an image of a gorgeous sunlit
summer landscape.
No. 6 is a brief description of a terrible, destructive
No. 7 represents a kind of mystery or paradox.
No. 8 is an endless, anxious movement woven with Dies
irae motifs.
No. 9 is a picture of spring, full of vague, joyful
excitement. Here, nature is not only revived but is also
filled with sensuality.
No. 10 is the longest, a philosophical journey to another
world. The composer allegedly gave it the mysterious title ‘Return’, but I believe the content is more mystical, and if it is a return then it is Orpheus’s, without Eurydice.
The last three leave room for light and joy:
No. 11 is serene; perhaps a naïve idea of a medieval
Russian peasant family, with dancing, church motifs
and hints of bell-ringing.
One of the most popular is No. 12, representing an
image of a troika rushing off with its barely audible bells
No. 13 is the conclusion of the cycle (and also the last of
Rachmaninov’s 24 preludes). It is a grandiose piece recalling Easter Night, the most important Orthodox holiday. After a solemn introduction, an image of silence and night appears, but the good news of the resurrection starts to sound ever louder, becoming triumphant jubilation, celebrating victory over defeat . Nikolai Lugansky

Lugansky had won the same Bach Competition in Leipzig that his teacher had won when Shostakovich was on the jury and was so inspired to write his own Preludes and Fugues for her
Ileana Ghione in the Teatro Ghione in Rome with Lugansky’s teacher Tatyana Nikolaeva


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