“I love playing all sorts of different composers – Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Tchaikovsky – but to play the instrumental music of a composer who knew the piano better than anyone else is a great privilege, a great joy.” Few pianists are so closely identified with the music of Sergei Rachmaninov than Nikolai Lugansky and in this 150th anniversary year, the composer features exclusively in his recital programmes for the coming months. Speaking from Vienna, Lugansky enthuses about Rachmaninov’s music, despite the steep challenges it presents to pianists. 

Nikolai Lugansky
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

“Technically, it’s very difficult to play because Rachmaninov, of course, was absolutely a top pianist, probably the greatest pianist to this day,” Lugansky explains. There’s plenty of evidence to support this claim. As well as recordings made in the 1920s and 30s, after Rachmaninov’s self-imposed exile from Russia following the October Revolution, there are a handful of piano rolls he cut for the American Piano Company (Ampico), so we are also able to hear the great man play in superior recorded sound. 

“I heard the piano rolls much later than the famous recordings, which are old, but still sound very natural. They are some of the greatest piano recordings ever made, in spite of the sound quality. But I don’t think we can study from recordings – we study from the score, we study at the instrument, but recordings are for our pleasure, to be happy, not for work.

Nikolai Lugansky
© Marco Borggreve

“Rachmaninov’s pianism was based on an unbelievable schooling,” Lugansky continues. “He was sent from St Petersburg to Moscow to study with Nikolai Zverev, where he received incredible training.” This was a training that Rachmaninov remembered fondly, despite Zverev’s strict discipline. “He never took a single coin from us as payment: neither for lessons, nor for board (after all, we lived in his house). He dressed us at the best tailors, we never missed a premiere at Moscow theatres – musical or drama.”

Although Rachmaninov’s career as a pianist is fascinating, Lugansky reminds me that while he was still in Russia, he was primarily concerned with composing and conducting. All but six of his works were written before leaving the country, a period when Rachmaninov worked as a conductor first at the Mamontov Private Russian Opera in Moscow, and then at the Bolshoi Theatre. “But after 1917, when he went into exile, Rachmaninov renewed his career as a pianist and achieved status as a great virtuoso.” His career could have continued down the conducting path – he twice turned down offers to lead the Boston Symphony, for example – but piano appearances took precedence. 

Prelude in C sharp minor

Famously, Rachmaninov had enormous hands and could straddle an interval of a 12th or 13th. I wonder what technical difficulties this poses to pianists tackling his works. “He had no concerns for the difficulties us other pianists would face!” laughs Lugansky. “Of course, he was writing principally for himself but I think he was sure that this music would be played by everyone else. I would say that there are some chords which are not possible to play for 95% of pianists. 

“But I think the main thing we pianists have to achieve is this unbelievable polyphony in his piano writing, where there are many voices, many lines and each line should be announced – or sung – like it is a separate voice. With Rachmaninov’s large hands, this was not a problem for him, it was so natural for him to bring out every voice, even within chords. You can hear the lines of the different voices.” 

Lugansky recalls his first encounter with Rachmaninov at the keyboard. “When I was 12 my teacher Tatiana Kestner proposed me to study two of the Études-tableaux – Op.39 no.2, which he called “The Sea and the Seagulls”, and the other one was a fast, difficult one, Op.33 no.5 in E flat minor, which is very short. We call it “Snowstorm”. These were the first pieces in my Rachmaninov repertoire and ever since then I play a lot every year, almost all his piano works.”

Nikolai Lugansky
© Nikita Larionov

The piano works listeners will be most familiar with are the four concertos, particularly the popular Second and the Third, made famous by films like Brief Encounter and Shine. Lugansky is a great champion of the lesser known concertos, the First in F sharp minor and the G minor Fourth

“I love everything that Rachmaninov wrote, but I would say that I prefer no.1 to no.2,” Lugansky tells me. “The Second is a great piece by a very young composer who we know had recovered from a heavy, silent period and it’s full of love, full of beautiful melodies and is one of the most popular concertos in the world. But I think the First is more of a masterpiece – this is just my opinion! – it’s very original and has beautiful melodies. It was his Op.1, composed at the age of 17, so it is a very youthful work. When he revised it in 1917, he was 44 and a master, already recognised as a genius, as a composer, as a pianist, but also as an orchestrator – which is a difference from Chopin who was never a great composer for orchestra. Rachmaninov had his own original orchestral style. By then he had already composed the Second Symphony, The Rock, The Isle of the Dead and The Bells – and he also had great experience by this point as an opera conductor and a symphonic conductor.

“Each piano concerto is a monument in the history of piano concertos, but the First combines this youth with unbelievable maturity as a great composer who had already composed in all possible forms with great success. Rachmaninov was always surprised by why people always wanted no.2 but not no.1. I wonder too, but it’s reality!  

Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor

“The Fourth is a very special piece,” Lugansky continues, “the first completed work after the long silence when he left Russia, although the themes and melodies were already sketched when he was at Ivanovka. This is a work in which Rachmaninov tells us about himself, let’s say his soul, and this is very hopeless, very dark. The dark moments in Rachmaninov’s music before and after this were more objective – the Symphonic Dances, for example, are very dark, but very objective – it’s a disaster, or a devil, it’s something “outside” – but in the Fourth he also writes about something disastrous, but it’s “inside” of him. I can understand why no.4 is not one of his more popular works, but I love it and have played it since a very young age.” 

Lugansky’s forthcoming recital programmes feature the Études-tableaux – literally “picture pieces” – not that Rachmaninov reveals what these pictures are. “​​I do not believe in the artist that discloses too much of his images,” wrote the composer. “Let [the listener] paint for themselves what it most suggests.” They were the last works he composed in Russia. Later, Rachmaninov did provide titles to five of them which he selected for Ottorino Respighi to orchestrate, including Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf (Op.39 no.6). Lugansky has just recorded both sets of Études-tableaux for the second time and reveals that, as a pianist, he does have mental images for these pieces.

Rachmaninov playing the Étude-tableau Op.39 no.6

One is very clear. For Lugansky, the Étude in C sharp minor – a key forever associated with the early Prélude that Rachmaninov grew to loathe – is allied with Dante’s Inferno. “For me it’s very certain. In terms of mood and musical material, it is not far from his opera Francesca da Rimini in its representations of infernal hell and the image of the vengeful Lanciotto Malatesta.” 

But mostly, Lugansky’s notes are not about giving definitive explanations of what the music is about. They are more “dialogue points” for people coming to the music for the first time. “Some of these images have even changed in my mind since I last recorded them.” He sees sun-drenched steppes (Op.33 no.2) and Tatar horseman racing by (Op.39 no.3), Snowstorms (Op.33 no.5) and autumnal sadness (Op.33 no.7), but these are merely suggestions, a little like Claude Debussy who added the titles to his two books of Préludes as a footnote after each piece. 

Étude-tableau Op.33 no.7

“As a listener, if I read a description like this I can either agree or disagree. These kinds of thoughts help you explore the music, but shouldn’t be exaggerated. It’s just to have a dialogue with the listener.” When Lugansky plays Rachmaninov, the musical conversation is full of riches.

Click here to see Nikolai Lugansky in concert.