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An Interview with the Pianist Nikolai Lugansky
Mr Lugansky, our invitation for you to give the closing recital at the Lipatti Festival came rather late, given that your agenda is usually set by six months in advance; yet, you immediately agreed and I would even say I felt enthusiasm in your acceptance. Was I wrong? If not, why this enthusiasm?
I am very glad to be performing within an event dedicated to Dinu Lipatti, one of my favourite pianists. I have been listening to his recordings ever since I was a child. I was very young when I first heard his name. I remember that my first piano teacher, who was also my neighbour in the countryside, where we had an estate, talked to me about Lipatti as one of the best Chopin interpreters during the first half of the 20th century. My teacher lent me some recordings of Chopin's Waltzes in Lipatti's interpretation. I think I was eight at the time.
Your programme has a definite national character, including works by Liszt, Janacek and Rachmaninoff. Moreover, you come from a country that has wished and managed to impose its will when it comes to how music should sound. What is your outlook on this music?
The three composers whose works I interpret come from very different cultures and worlds. Regarding Rachmaninoff, Sonata no. 3 is a wonderful work that I adore, but it's also very complex. It's not exactly a piece of cake. And what is more interesting is that it departs from the concept of Russian music. Its source of inspiration was Faustus by Goethe. The work was composed in Dresden, where Rachmaninoff spent three winters in a row. It's an amazing work, with a marked philosophical dimension, very different from his Piano Concerto no. 2, Preludes or Études-Tableaux.
Janacek is one of my favourite composers, but the general public is not very familiarized with him. I believe him to be one of the greatest composers of piano music in the 20th century.
Liszt, just like Rachmaninoff, is one of those artists who revolutionized piano music, in terms of sonority and colour; thus, I am delighted to bring these three universes together in a recital.
Whenever I perform a new composer, I try to find a new key for his music.
The Russian piano school is very well-known. Where does its strength come from?
Being Russian, I find it difficult to provide an (objective) answer to a question related to the Russian school. There is a wide variety of schools in Russia and a lot of teachers with different teaching methods, so I think you'd better address this question to a non-Russian teacher, member of the juries of great competitions, because he can be objective. The Russian school has so many guidelines, so many ideas. My teacher, Tatiana Nikolayeva, was a student of Alexander Goldenweiser who was an admirer of the musical Classicism and had a more pro-Western way of thinking. Neuhaus was an expert on late Romanticism. Igumnov was very "Russian" in his thinking. I can't offer a comprehensive description of the Russian piano school. What I can say is that the educational system offers children the opportunity of having professional music classes starting with the age of seven. This goes back to the Soviet period, when the State could afford to pay for all these classes.
What exactly do you try to reveal from a score when you present it in front of an audience?
It all comes naturally, just like reallife. You live with a work when you study it, when you look over the score or listen to its recordings; in the end, it develops naturally. I don't have a special method or a particular plan. I just play the composition and I soon know it by heart. I can't say that I create "drafts"; everything has to run its course, like a flowing river or a growing plant.
You have been applauded for refinement and virtuosity. Is there a moment when you get the conscious feeling of having performed a composition well?
There are moments when you feel that you are really close to the genius who created that work. But they are only moments. We, as musicians, should get as close as possible to the intentions of the geniuses who composed the music, but after all, we are only human. You must try to rise to the height of the message the composer intended to convey. You sometimes succeed that and you feel it, but the sensation may last for five minutes and then it goes away. We are constantly trying to reach this summit. I can't describe what I feel during a recital, because I can't be objective. There are occasions when you feel really well on stage and you sense that your performance was very good, then you listen to the recording and you maintain your favourable opinion. Nevertheless, it also happens that you are satisfied with the concert, but when you listen to the recording, you feel it wasn't quite right. The emotions the audience feel are more important.
I was moved reading the description of your teacher, Tatiana Nikolayeva. You said that she was like the sun, kind, considerate, smiling and that you never saw her upset. Lipatti also had an excellent teacher, Florica Musicescu, but she was tough and sometimes used a violent language. What was, in your opinion, the impact of her behaviour on Lipatti?
I don't think that the teacher plays a vital part when dealing with a genius. I believe that the personality of a Lipatti can't be destroyed. You can't affect his development. You can tell him good or bad things, but the talent of a person like Lipatti will eventually find a way to bloom. Nowadays there are many teaching methods. Nikolayeva was very gentle, I think that I only saw her really upset once or twice, but that was because the students were lazy and hadn't prepared. But these were the exceptions. I also went to master classes where the teachers were tougher. Personally, I don't agree with such an approach, but there are circumstances when it can be of help. Anyway, when dealing with a talent such as Dinu Lipatti's, who he studies with becomes irrelevant, because the result will be the same.
You stated that you practise every day, but for only a few hours, quoting Vadim Rudenko who said that « those who work very hard have nothing else to do ». Lipatti also had extra-musical interests such as driving or photography, among others. What are your hobbies and how do they contribute to enriching your sources of inspiration?
I have various passions. I have a family, I travel a lot, I visit museums, I play chess, ping-pong and badminton. I read a lot, mainly Russian poetry. Some of these activities may inspire me, but I can't find a direct link between them and my sources of inspiration. I'm not a computer fan and I hardly ever use the Internet. I like taking walks, meeting friends, visiting museums, but I repeat, I can't find a direct connection between these and the music I play. Maybe there is one, but I never stopped to analyse it.
You mentioned literature. I know, from some of your other interviews, that it is one of your passions. I have read that you like Proust, although the last time you read his novel, you thought it was too long. Putting Proust and Dostoyevsky side by side, what musical works would you choose to translate the impressions left by these two writers?
First of all, I think that there are many French writers better than Proust, as well as many Russian writers better than Dostoyevsky. So, this is a rather restrictive question. Should such connections or similarities between the lives of composers and writers exist, I'd rather mention Mozart and Pushkin, with a similar destiny and outlook on life.
The more you listen, the more possibilities to interpret there are. I might connect Proust's literature to the music of Fauré or Debussy, but I like their works better than Proust's writing. There are many French writers I prefer to Proust: Maupassant and Flaubert, for example; and among the Russians - Pushkin, Chekhov or Bulgakov.
I find it strange that Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are perceived as representatives of Russian literature. Of course, they are important, but I think that we have many other amazing writers. This is, however, a strictly personal point of view.
I don't know why some writers end up seemingly more important than they really are. Dostoyevsky is a follower of Gogol, but he's not the most accurate portraitist of the Russian soul. He has a rich imagination which has nothing to do with Russian reality. It's also the case of Proust who was so focused on his own personality that the rest was barely outlined. I like writers with a broad perspective, who don't focus exclusively on their own feelings. Any being is a micro-cosm, not just I, but also the person sitting next to me on the train or the one listening to a concert.
Mr Lugansky, you have been to Romania twice, within the George Enescu International Festival, but you only played with an orchestra. This time you'll have a solo recital. What are your expectations from this new experience in Bucharest?
I really liked Bucharest, I enjoyed its atmosphere, I met wonderful people and I have some beautiful memories. This time I'll give a recital at the Romanian Athenaeum, which is an entirely different experience from the concertistic one, so I'm curious as to how the Bucharest audience will react to it. I'm looking forward to the recital. I have also heard good things about the acoustics of the Romanian Athenaeum, so I'm sure it's the ideal place for a recital. The hall where I performed before, the Palace Hall, had challenging acoustics. So, I'm glad to be performing in a smaller hall.
One last question: do you have a message for the Romanian audience who are looking forward to your recital?
The best message a pianist can transmit is his music. But, anyway, I wish all music lovers in Romania to be open to new musical experiences, to receive music and its interpreters with an open heart and to be prepared because each day can bring them new musical miracles. Thus, you'll never miss anything important.
Translated by Mihaela Olinescu and Elena Daniela Radu
MTTLC, Bucharest University