English profiles

Telephone interview, 20 March 2023

Willem Boone (WB): My first question is about an interview with you I read in which you said the Schubert Fantasy for violin and piano was the most difficult piece you ever played and that it was more difficult than any of the Rachmaninov concertos. I was wondering what makes that piece so difficult?

Nikolai Lugansky (NL): I would be much more nervous if I had to play the Schubert Fantasy in a week’s time than a Rachmaninov concerto. Technically, just playing the notes of this Fantasy makes it one of the most difficult pieces, for both instruments.

WB: Is it because it’s not pianistically written?
NL: Yes, that is one of the problems. Schubert was a poor musician and not a real piano virtuoso who knew exactly how to write conveniently and to make it seem difficult. For him, it was music he heard inside, I presume he had major problems playing his own works.

WB: Would you say it is more difficult than the third Rachmaninov concerto?
NL: Yes, it is! Technically, it’s more difficult, it also depends on the age you learnt the piece. I have played Rachmaninov since I was 19; I played the Schubert Fantasy with Vadim Repin for the first time when I was 30. It’s a big difference; what you study when you are a teenager is much easier to play than what you study after you are 30 years old.

WB: Is that the same for his solo piano music?
NL: For some of it, yes. I haven’t played so much of it. The C-minor sonata D 958 is very difficult.
WB: And is it more difficult because there are fewer notes than in Rachmaninov?
NL: It depends. His Corelli Variations have fewer notes than his third Concerto, but the Corelli Variations are more difficult. However, the question about what is difficult and what is easy is a very individual one! Alfred Brendel would answer this question differently than I would. 

WB: That’s true. And about Rachmaninov, is he your favourite composer?
NL: He is one of my beloved composers, one of my favourites; I have played almost all of his works, but I would say I have several favourite composers: let’s say there is also Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. However, there are more links with Rachmaninov: he is Russian and when I made my first trips to Europe and America, I was asked to play Russian music much more. Actually,  I was not unhappy; I played it a lot and never tired of it.

WB: I understand. How famous was he as a conductor?

NL: That’s an interesting question! In Russia, he was quite famous as a conductor and it is an interesting moment in his biography. The premiere of his First Symphony was a disaster, nobody liked it. When he composed this piece, he liked it and played it on the piano. He felt terrible after the premiere. It is said that he didn’t do anything the next three years after this happened, but this isn’t true. He almost stopped composing, except for one or two pieces in two and a half years, but he accepted a role as a conductor at private Amatov (?) Opera without experience five months after the premiere. If you are in a very deep depression, it is quite difficult to immediately start a new job. As a conductor, you have to communicate with people, in Russia his career as a conductor probably started earlier than his career as a pianist.  Then he became the conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre for five years. He did a lot of operas. The first one was Samson et Dehlila by Saint Seans. His concert career didn’t start until after the emigration, before he was dividing himself between conducting, playing the piano and composing. Composing was certainly the most important. 

WB: He made one recording of the Third Symphony. Was it the only recording he made as a conductor? 
NL: Besides the 3rd Symphony, there are also the Isle of Death and his own arrangement of the Vocalise for orchestra.

WB: I read in a French book, “Dictionnaire du piano amoureux”, when he moved to the United States that he almost stopped being a pianist and a conductor, but it helped his career as a pianist. Is that true?
NL: After he left Russia, he didn’t conduct much anymore, maybe only a few times, and he made his famous recording of the Third Symphony. He absolutely concentrated on his piano playing during the first ten years.

WB: Did he not compose anything anymore when he was in the United States or only very little?
NL: He composed 13 or 14 piano transcriptions during the first nine years and each one is part of piano history! If you take Liszt, he wrote a lot of wonderful transcriptions, a lot of normal ones and some of them I would never play. He did everything; Rachmaninov only wrote 13 or 14, but each one is a masterpiece. They were not original pieces, his first original work was the Piano concerto number 4, it was first published in 1926, although he had already started in Russia. 

WB: Do you agree that he played Chopin, Schumann and Liszt as if he was the composer as opposed to someone like Glenn Gould who played works in a very personal way?

NL: I think the comparison with Gould is not correct! It is a long story, but they are just different levels of genius. For me he is of course very personal, Liszt played Chopin études not like Chopin; he played them like Liszt, but he was the greatest pianist of the 19th century.Rachmaninov was certainly the greatest pianist of the first half of the 20th century, Glenn Gould is a different story.

WB: But would you agree that Rachmaninov played as if he was Chopin or Schumann when he played their music?
NL: I think if a performer plays on stage, everybody thinks: this is my music! With some, it is just comical, but with Rachmaninov, it was so powerful, you forgot to think, you were impressed by the power of the greatest pianist.

WB: I read that after his lessons with Zverev Rachmaninov never stopped warming up with Czerny’s exercises. What is your way to warm up before you start practising?
NL: I do have some; I use two or three Brahms exercises, I sometimes do one or two Czerny exercises if my fingers are cold and if I have to warm up very quickly, but I don’t have any system. I know that Rachmaninov in spite of his incredible technique was very disciplined, especially the first year after his emigration when he started his career as a pianist. He studied exercises one or two hours every day. 

WB: I read in the same book that Chopin’s Second Sonata served as model for his own Second Sonata. I was wondering whether there are any similarities between these two pieces, because they seem very different to me?
NL: I agree with you; I don’t see any similarities, except the tonality of B-flat minor. His own recording of Chopin’s Second Sonata is so impressive, it’s one of the monuments of pianistic art. The general dark mood, the presentiment of something very bad to happen, yes, of course, but otherwise, no, they have nothing in common. There is no scherzo, no funeral march.

WB: Exactly, I also read in the same book that when he played his own music, he seemed more reserved, as if he felt less free, ‘out of modesty to delve into the meanders of his deep soul.’ Do you agree?
NL: Partly. If you are familiar with Rachmaninov’s piano music and then listen to his recordings, the first feeling is: ‘How strict, how straight, how disciplined he is!’ If you listen more, you think: that’s the greatest art, the combination of unbelievable emotional power and very strict structure of his work. That makes it so impressive for me. It’s different with every piece, but it’s especially true with the Second and Third Piano Concerto, which are unbelievably straight and unsentimental.  The Fourth Concerto, one of his final recordings is incredibly warm and passionate for me.

WB: I read another very interesting story that he was a very strong man: ‘His force was colossal, once before a performance of his Second Concerto in Sint Petersburg, he wanted to move his stool closer to the piano by grasping the concert piano with his hands and it was the piano that moved towards him!’ Have you heard that story?
NL: You know, when the wheels of the piano were not locked and when the stage was not uneven, it can also happen with a weak …(?), so I’m not that impressed. But of course, he was very big, very tall and very strong! However, moving a piano on stage is a typical story, not only of Rachmaninov…

WB: I have a few questions about the Third Piano Concerto, do you usually play the short cadenza in the first movement?

NL: Yes, of course I know the big one.It’s interesting to know that Rachmaninov played both, but in the recording, he played the short one, which I like more, I have to say. It’s a concerto of unbelievable power and the big cadenza starts with the culmination, which is wonderful, but I prefer the short one. It starts with the piano and has only one culmination point.

WB: There is a French critic who really praises your playing, Alain Lompech once wrote that it is a bad habit of Russian pianists to slow down in the passage just before the coda in the third movement. He said a lot of pianists slow down, whereas the composer didn’t intend it. Do you recognize that?
NL: I know Alain Lompech, but I am thinking where in the score this happens exactly, before the code of the finale of the Third Piano Concerto?

WB: Yes, in the last movement, the last few minutes.
NL: There are more places where I do a little ritardando, there are hundreds of places where this might happen! For me it’s natural to slow down a little bit at the end. If you’re on stage, it depends on your mood, on how things went before, on how you feel…I don’t think it’s a question we can discuss during the interview and find a solution. You find the solution every time on stage, it’s different every time.

WB: I have a few questions about an interview your did in the French magazine Classica from February 2023: you said about the Etudes Tableaux opus 39: “He sensed what was going to happen, almost everything was written in a minor key.”I feel that there is some kind of paradox in his music, because even though a lot of music is written in a minor key, I still feel a lot of underlying energy. Is that possible?

NL: Of course, it’s possible, it’s true! He did a lot in his life and I would say he as a person had some intention to be not in depression, but… He described a recording with Fritz Kreisler, they recorded wonderful sonatas by Beethoven, Schubert and Grieg, he said he wasn’t happy with the takes and said he wanted to do it again and again until Kreisler said: “No, it’s perfect, let’s stop here’, to which Rachmaninov replied: “No, I am pessimistic, I always feel that something is not good.’ He was a pessimistic person, inside, he became very disciplined, which is not always common for Russians. His destiny was not so simple, he didn’t spend his childhood with his parents, but with his aunt, he had the feeling that nobody would help him. But speaking of energy… of course, there are people with more energy. His music has energy, but it’s a different energy, especially when he played his own music. You immediately see the direction, it’s almost always straightforward, there is great deal of energy. The minor key is not about ‘depression’, in his case, it’s the presentiment of the disasters to come, the First World War, the Russian Revolution…he had the feeling that something tragic would happen..
 he regretted that Liszt didn’t make any recordings.  

WB: You said in the same interview that Michelangeli payed the Fourth Piano Concerto a lot better than most Russian pianists. I was wondering what makes it so much better?
NL: It’s very simple, because Michelangeli was probably one of the three or four greatest pianists in history!  When I say he plays Rachmaninov better than other pianists, the same pianist will pay better Beethoven, it’s just because he was an unbelievable musician, not because of some spiritual Russian or Italian soul, no, because he was one of the greats. 

WB: Are there other pianists about whom you would say the same in other concertos or the Rhapsody?
NL: It’s probably not my style to say: “He or she is better”, if you discuss whether Russians are the best at Rachmaninov’s concertos, Michelangeli is wonderful with the Fourth Concerto, Martha Argerich is of course an unbelievable interpreter of number three, Zoltan Kocsis played number two wonderfully, in my opinion. No, with all my admiration for Michelangeli today, it’s still Rachmaninov himself whom I like the best in number four. However, we speak about great pianists, you enjoy it every time they play and you are happy, we don’t need to say who is number one, two or three.

WB: No, I agree. Again, in the same interview you said: “Along with Chopin and Liszt, he went the furthest in the universe of the piano” Do you mean that in a technical sense, since his music can’t be called modern or revolutionary?

NL: There are some composers we mentioned at the beginning of our conversation: Schubert, he is a genius and really one of my greatest loves in music, but many compositions he wrote for piano can be performed by string quartets, string sextets, small orchestras or even big orchestras. He just composed music and in this case it’s for piano or not for piano. When we speak about the piano music of Chopin, Liszt or Rachmaninov, it’s only piano music. It’s impossible to transcribe their music for orchestra, even though there have been attempts. Rachmaninov was a great orchestral or choral composer, but his piano music is unified: his legs, his arms and his piano are just part of his body. I feel the same with Chopin and Liszt. There are not many: it’s less tru even with Brahms, not at all with Beethoven! It doesn’t mean that some are better composers than others, they were all geniuses, but this unity with the instrument, like Paganini with his violin, is unique.

WB: And you said: ‘Albeniz is not far away, nor are Ravel, Debussy or Scriabine.’ What did you mean by that?
NL: I mean the same! Everybody creates their own style of piano writing. When you listen to the melodies, the accompaniment, the voicing, we understand: ‘This is Ravel!’, this is his piano writing, it’s unified as well. Debussy with his piano, Scriabine with his piano, Albeniz especially, he intended new things in piano writing. Sometimes, I put his name immediately after the names of Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov.

WB: I once heard a colleague of yours, Nikolai Demidenko. I spoke to him very briefly after a concert and I heard him tell someone that allegedly, there was a recording of Rachmaninov playing Liszt’s Dante Sonata, could that be true?NL: If there is a recording?

WB: Well, he claimed there was…
NL: You know, it could be true. I never thought about it. If it is true, I would be very curious to listen to it!
WB: So would I! There was this discovery not long ago of him playing parts of the Symphonic Dances, so I guess maybe there is more out there?
NL: It could be possible that he played excerpts of the Dante Sonata and someone discreetly recorded him, maybe… I have no idea.

WB: What do you think of this recently found recording of him playing parts of the Symphonic Dances?
NL: It’s unbelievably interesting and impressive of course. I would say with people of his calibre, everything: records, films, photographs should be published. 

WB: Indeed! This weekend, I heard the two-piano version of the Symphonic Dances. Was that the first version or was it first composed for orchestra?
NL: The official version was the symphonic version. In Rachmaninov’s case, we can’t be sure, because he was able to play everything on the piano immediately. He played this piece for himself on the piano, I think the two-piano version was composed later.

WB: I listened to your recent recording of the Etudes Tableaux and your playing reminded me of Rachmaninov’s, because I hear a lot of sobriety, but, underneath, there is a tremendous virtuosity and power. When I tell you that, is it the highest praise for you?
NL: Thank you very much for your kind words, Rachmaninov only recorded four or five of the Etudes Tableaux, I am sure if he had recorded all of them, he would play with a faster tempo than me. It’s nice to hear, but honestly I think that Rachmaninov as a composer and as a pianist is from another planet! We all listen to his recordings. Of the pianists who tried to come close to his recordings, I would single out the Hungarian pianist Zoltan Kocsis. He tried very quick tempos, close to the composer’s. It should not be the goal; because you have first of all find the harmony with yourself. If you try to be like somebody else, you cannot get the results, but for me it’s more important to study the score than to study his recordings. I don’t feel that I have to do the same.

WB: As a listen on your CD of the Etudes Tableaux, you played three piano pieces. Are these posthumous pieces without opus number?
NL: Yes, they were possibly composed weeks before he left Russia, so they’re very special. I think he was very depressed when he wrote them, because he knew he was going to leave his mother land. He felt things were going to take a bad turn. The pieces are special because of his very dark mood.

WB: I have two other questions, it’s a totally different subject. Nikolaus Harnoncourt once said: ‘Music is not there to please people.’ What do you think of this assessment?
NL: I would say: we don’t even know what music is for? I think it’s not the right question, Maybe music existed before us, before humanity. It’s very strange, but maybe if nobody lives on the earth anymore, music might still continue..If a person is very religious, it would be strange to ask him: “What is god for?” It is not the question. Music was born before homo sapiens, it existed. Sometimes it pleases people, sometimes it lifts them up. Music is in the air, the aerosols,  in scores and books, everywhere. The question is: what do we do to approach music? We have to study, to prepare our ears. The music doesn’t care what we think of it..

WB: My last question is about your teacher Tatyana Nikolayeva: what is the most important lesson you learnt from her?

NL: It’s difficult to say, because I was very young, 12 years old, when I officially became her pupil. At that age, you don’t analyse; you are natural. I learnt from her to be open to any kind of music, all possible interpretations, to listen to different sorts of music as much as possible. When they get older, 99% of people stick with their opinions,and she was more and more open to anything: new interpretations, new pianists. She was always curious and open. That was the greatest example. She could be very exact about details; it’s not easy to describe.