Composer to whom he's akin

Pianist Nikolai Lugansky has played Rachmaninoff more than most.
Pianist Nikolai Lugansky has played Rachmaninoff more than most. (JAMES McMILLAN)
Posted: February 18, 2012

Few current pianists have played and recorded as much Rachmaninoff as Nikolai Lugansky. And no orchestra had such an intensive association with pianist/composer Rachmaninoff as the Philadelphia Orchestra. The combination is such that each side welcomes the other almost as if they're cousins. Maybe they are.

"Here, this music is unbelievably close," Lugansky said Thursday, having just rehearsed Rachmaninoff with the orchestra. "This is the best Russian style."

But what such a collaboration actually would sound like on Friday and Saturday night at the Kimmel Center performances of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 - and how much Lugansky would follow in the composer's footsteps - remained to be seen.

The Charles Dutoit version of the Philadelphia Orchestra sound is far from Leopold Stokowski's in the 1920s and '30s when Rachmaninoff, who died in 1943, recorded all of his concertos here. If Rachmaninoff is lurking anywhere in the orchestra, it's in the players' collective received memory rather than anything superficial. Resuscitating what the composer did on his recordings would seem easier, but Lugansky isn't trying.

"Rachmaninoff was maybe the greatest pianist of all time," he said. "But now everything is different. The pianos are different. Our possibilities are different."

And perhaps Rachmaninoff was addressing his times in ways that aren't relevant to ours. The composer's tempos are pretty fast by 2012 standards; Lugansky wonders if they were meant to answer critics who found his music to be emotionally self-indulgent.

Also, when Lugansky talks about Rachmaninoff's pianistic greatness, it's not because he hit all the notes (in some recordings, he didn't); he could achieve levels of expressivity at speeds that are impossible for others.

In any case, who would want to hear Rachmaninoff with secondhand emotionalism? "The more you play the pieces, the more you bring your body and heart to it, and the more natural it should sound," Lugansky said.

Natural is a word that comes up a lot in references to Lugansky. The 39-year-old Russian began playing at age 5, was able to correct his father's wrong notes when tapping out popular Russian tunes on a toy piano, and was found to have perfect pitch. He caught the tail end of the great Soviet tradition of pianism, studying intensively under Tatiana Nikolaeva, and placing well in contests, among them the Rachmaninoff Competition in Moscow.

He played with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Saratoga in 2008; his Philadelphia debut was a 2010 Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 that left the musicians looking forward to his return. "It was such a special performance," said violinist Jason DePue. "He's a natural," said principal timpanist Don Liuzzi.

There's that word again.

Hearing Lugansky practicing onstage after his Philadelphia Orchestra rehearsal Thursday - and considering his wide-ranging repertoire of 50 concertos - it's hard to imagine anything his fingers can't do. Yet being a natural doesn't mean everything is easy: "Physically, I have things to solve as a pianist. Sometimes, I can suffer."

Unlike such Russian pianists as the idolized Grigory Sokolov, whose anguish at the keyboard is visible, Lugansky maintains the kind of perspective that comes with having a wife, three children, and an extensive family network that keeps him based in Moscow, even though he no longer cares much for the city.

And yet, he's the kind of musician for whom music scores are bedtime reading. He can whip the most challenging concertos by Brahms into shape in two or three days. And if he, like so many of his countrymen, is asked to play Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff over and over when he comes to the West, he simply says, "I am a Russian pianist, no doubt."

The extra-musical associations Rachmaninoff has acquired through the music's inclusion in Hollywood films when something stereotypically schlocky is needed is more a point of pride than embarrassment: "The quality of this music is enough to withstand any mass-media attack."

Yet he bristles when you suggest he's a Rachmaninoff specialist. "I love this music. I'm always happy to play it. I've never had a reaction against Rachmaninoff. But a specialist? It sounds like a quite unpleasant word," he said. "I don't really know anything very important. I'm just in love with this music. And if you're in love, something good will happen. . . . You discover the accompaniment in the left hand is so beautifully written, you should try to do it with your heart.

"Specialist, I think, is quite a bad word."


Look for Peter Dobrin's review of Friday night's concert on Philly.com and in Monday's Inquirer.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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