If there had been anything approaching the Advertising Standards Authority in Tsarist Russia, those readers of a St Petersburg magazine which published as sheet music a series of miniatures between January and December 1876 – intended for the growing number of enthusiastic amateur pianists – might have had cause for complaint. For what eventually became known as Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons should, strictly speaking, have sailed under the more accurate title of The Months. But then, the musical world is full of misnomers. After all, is there anything vaguely “petite” or indeed “solennelle” about Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle?

Nikolai Lugansky © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Nikolai Lugansky
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

What is equally discombobulating is that the individual character of the twelve vignettes bears little relation to the time of the year, nor are the titles always a useful guide to content. March, for instance, introduces us to the “Song of the Lark”. This lark, however, surveys a bleak landscape of barren furrows in early spring from the top of a tree, rather than soaring aloft as its later cousin does with Vaughan Williams. Tchaikovsky’s ornithological creation has a growling bass, delivered weightily by Nikolai Lugansky at Wigmore Hall, and set against streaks of flighty capriciousness. Six months later the composer gives us “The Hunt”, with an abundance of counterpoint, here rendered by the soloist with emphatic insistence, suggesting if anything a stealthy stalking of one’s prey, in sharp contrast to Méhul’s characterisation in La chasse du jeune Henri.

Good though it is to have these minatures occupying an entire first half, one quickly becomes aware of the fact that they are not the most inspired instances of Tchaikovsky’s artistic genius. In part this has to do with the absence of any serious technical challenge, with the possible exception of November’s “In the troika”, where rapid grace-notes introduce the clusters of celebratory sleigh bells. When the prevailing mood of these pieces is one of wistful nostalgia, the scope for rhythmic and melodic variation is inevitably restricted. This is particularly apparent in the contiguity of January’s “By the fireside” and December’s “Christmas”, virtually interchangeable in mood and emphasis, even though this brings the journey neatly back to where it started. The triumphant conclusion of August’s “The harvest”, with its earlier ripples of rising notes set against the splashes of downward cascades, would in purely theatrical terms have made a more fitting finale to the cycle.

Lugansky gave an expansive traversal of this Russian year, sometimes lingering over the reflective moments with a controlled intensity. His playing was unfailingly elegant and with the exception of occasional over-pedalling there was little to disturb the overall serenity. Two of the months stood out for me in their portrayal. June’s “Barcarolle” takes us into Onegin territory and a gently rocking rhythm then segues effortlessly into one of Tchaikovsky’s most lyrically beautiful melodies. October’s “Autumn song” is miles away from Keats’ “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. In contrast, Tchaikovsky sees this as a time of fading light, falling leaves and colour bleached from the senses. Both these movements were played with unaffected simplicity by Lugansky. And yet, throughout  these 45 minutes I never once felt that he owned these pieces sufficiently for me to think that they add up to a neglected masterpiece.

What linked Tchaikovsky and Chopin in this recital was a mood of nostalgia. Chopin’s first published composition, at the age of eight, was a polonaise and the mazurka, of which he wrote fourteen different sets, is arguably his most personal contribution to the keyboard. Even if Schumann once described the latter as “guns buried in flowers”, they are both dances: too much heaviness inhibits their essential character. In the A flat Polonaise-fantaisie Lugansky gave due emphasis to its heroic qualities, with technically accomplished playing including perfectly placed trills, but he also brought a very Russian inwardness to the middle section where the composer darts in and out of the minor mode, and one particular line of liquid gold that he conjured up towards the end lingers in my memory. But the heaviness was never far away, not least in the four mazurkas that followed.

More stylistically assured playing came in the final two pieces. In the F sharp Barcarolle Lugansky displayed an exquisite degree of refinement, never once breaching the melodic flow and giving the moments of repose a hushed and magical quality. You could almost see the mother-of-pearl glistening beneath the crystal chandeliers of the ballroom. The wistful quality that inhabits wide stretches of the Ballade in F minor brought us full circle: a direct line of inspiration linking Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Lugansky had the full measure of this piece, seizing on the dramatic contrasts and conveying the shifting moods with complete conviction. This was scintillating playing of a high order.

The evening concluded with three encores, two Chopin études preceded by one of Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte.