Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
Nikolai Lugansky (pn); Alexander Vedernikov, cond; Snf Varsovia
NAÏVE 212 (72:00)
In recent years, there has been a trend among recording companies to send attractive, highly publicized young pianists into the studio to record Chopin’s concertos. In general, the results have been vapid and insignificant. A case could be made that Chopin completed the concertos by the time he was 20, but their emotional world demonstrates a precocity far beyond the composer’s years.
Nikolai Lugansky has waited until he turned 40 to commit the concertos to disc, a decision that reveals wisdom and maturity. A few years ago, in 34:3, I welcomed a generally fine Chopin recital by Lugansky, but it did not prepare me for his exceptional accomplishment in the concertos. Lugansky always has had more than enough technique to perform them, but now he also has a mellowness and an emotional depth that give his concertos the feeling of an aged, vintage wine. He plays them with commendable freedom always reined in by skilled judgment as to the composer’s intent. Lugansky’s sound is full and luminous but never brash, revealing layers of meaning in Chopin’s figurations. This CD displays an artist who has grown in stature along with his years, confident yet questioning the significance of what he plays. It would be wonderful to have another recording of these concertos from Lugansky when he turns 60, just to see where he has gone on his journey. For the moment, his interpretations of the concertos are something to treasure.
The Sinfonia Varsovia is a modest-sized symphony orchestra, enabling the sound of the soloist to be naturally more prominent than it is on some recordings. Alexander Vedernikov is an able and pungent accompanist, not always an easy task given the free-flowing ideas of his pianist. Lugansky has placed the Second Concerto first on his CD, as it was the earlier of the two to be composed. In its first movement,
is as much a matter of attitude for Lugansky as of tempo, as he manipulates a rich sound. He is deeply emotional in the second subject. In the manner of a pianist of halcyon days, his development section is unhurried. The return of the first subject displays a mazurka-like grace. Alas, there is what sounds like a bad splice in one of the orchestral tuttis. In the slow movement, Lugansky employs a light touch that permits the music to float in the air like an idealized nocturne. Chopin said of piano tone, “The goal is not to play everything with an equal sound, but rather, it seems to me, a well-formed technique that can control and vary a beautiful sound quality.” Lugansky’s playing here is the epitome of Chopin’s dictum. His account of the string tremolo episode reveals confidence along with pathos. For the last movement, Lugansky plays with great brilliance, but never so much that he can’t slow down or vary dynamics to bring out a felicitous phrase. His coda is the height of elegance.
Lugansky is at least as impressive in the First Concerto as he is in the Second. On his initial entrance, he spins a long,
vocal line. In this opening movement,
has the quality of a sublime arioso. One can see the earth being submerged in darkness in the B section. Lugansky’s subsequent passage work is full of character, suffused with the landscape of some subterranean world. The B section’s return has the rarefied atmosphere of words from beyond the grave. Of the slow movement, Chopin wrote, “It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.” Being a Romance, its phrases in Lugansky’s hands flow in and out of consciousness with the gentle ease of a “reverie.” The brief B section is like a shiver from a cold breeze. There is a magical moment in the short, unaccompanied bridge passage. The last movement seems to say, “Forget all that has happened before. It’s time for some urbane, good-natured fun.” Lugnasky’s playing here is rambunctious and earthy, a fitting conclusion to his journey through this album. The sound engineering, from the oft-used Witold Lutos?awski Concert Studio of Polish Radio, is superb. I have a slight preference for the CD of the concertos by Elisabeth Leonskaja, with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Czech Philharmonic. Her tonal resources are even greater than Lugansky’s, and she is not afraid to be emotionally cool when the composer calls for it. Nevertheless, Lugansky’s Chopin concertos are a great achievement. They provide a rich experience I can’t imagine tiring of.
FANFARE: Dave Saemann
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