The Berlin Piano Festival is happening for the third time this year, and once again, it’s serving up an exquisite programme with top artists. The opening concert was given by Russian piano master Nikolai Lugansky, who, astonishingly, had never given a solo recital in Berlin. On this mild summer evening, lovers of great chamber music filled the wonderful Berlin Konzerthaus to the brim and were richly rewarded for their wait. An accomplished artist presented a finely architected programme of even more accomplished piano music, leaving little to be wished for.

The evening began with César Franck’s Prélude, Chorale et Fugue. In 1884, at the height of his powers, the Belgian composer wrote the Prélude and the Fugue, Op. 18, which together form a musical framework onto which the Chorale was later added. Franck composed these pieces as a homage to Johann Sebastian Bach, and consciously omitted those virtuosic capers that often gained him the label of prodigy when his exceptional talents were applied to organ compositions. Admittedly, this doesn’t mean that these pieces require anything less than the highest pianistic skill and maturity. Therefore, the first joy of this evening was that Nikolai Lugansky showed the highest level of mastery of his instrument in his interpretations of this extraordinary work.

Lugansky understands how to create tension with finesse in the transitions between individual passages and movements while simultaneously lending a sense of integrity to the whole work. Lugansky was particularly convincing in the chorale, which forms the centrepiece of this musical triptych. In the course of this piece, the harmonies are always thickly interwoven and culminate in arpeggiated chords with rhythmically varied falling bass lines, which contrast with the Cantus Firmus of the Chorale. With compelling musical logic, Lugansky built up these arpeggios into a glorious sonic construction. He did this to such an extent and the audience was so amazed at the last notes of the Fugue that he left one with the impression of having visited a gothic cathedral, wandering alongside the columns and buttresses of the nave and finally arriving at a comprehension of the architectural masterpiece as a whole. From the somewhat hesitant applause, one might almost have felt that the audience had not grasped the full extent of Lugansky’s achievement here.

This changed altogether with Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 4 in C minor, Op. 29, which the audience rewarded with thunderous applause. In the programme notes, Lugansky made the following comment on Prokofiev’s temperament: “Prokofiev never looks backward or pauses for reflection”. Prokofiev’s spontaneous imagination shapes his output of compositions, so that many works remind one of film music, in which sudden rhythmic shifts create unexpected twists and turns in the music. This brings my only point of criticism of Lugansky’s interpretation, namely that he was so perfect and polished as to leave hardly any room for surprises. His sense of touch was always perfect, which stood him in especially good stead in the last movement, whose wide range of sounds and technical challenges allowed Lugansky to put all of his craft on display.

After the interval, Lugansky took his audience on a journey into the depths of the Russian soul. Next to Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninov is often celebrated as the most Russian of Russian composers. Rachmaninov also takes a central place in Lugansky’s repertoire, the 13 Preludes, Op. 32 being one of the high points of his artistic achievement. The whole cycle was completed in just 19 days, which explains the consistent tonality of this work. Lugansky achieved this with perfection, giving each individual prelude its unmistakable character while maintaining excitement across all 13 pieces, so that here also, he produced a convincingly unified work of art.

The audience was smitten, and Nikolai Lugansky didn’t make them work too hard for their numerous encores, amongst which Chopin’s Étude, Op. 10 no. 8 deserves special mention. Lugansky played it without pedal and thus with such incredible lightness as to take the listener’s breath away.

Had Lugansky not announced that the piece by Russian-German composer Nikolai Medtner was to be the last encore, I would have been happy if this marvellous introduction to this year's festival had carried on far into the night. As well as Nikolai Lugansky, the festival will also feature Francesco Piemontesi, Freddy Kempf, Angela Hewitt and Elisso Virsaladze, so expectations can only be high for the following concerts!

Translation from German by David Karlin