In this 150th anniversary year, pianist Nikolai Lugansky is inevitably playing a lot of Rachmaninov, the composer with whom he is perhaps most associated. His sold-out Wigmore Hall recital will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 later this month, and comprised three hefty chunks – the Op.23 Preludes, the Corelli Variations and the Op.39 set of Études-tableaux, the first of three recitals this year covering nearly all of Rachmaninov's solo piano works. 

Nikolai Lugansky
© Wigmore Hall Trust, 2023

The most striking thing here was the variety Lugansky was able to display. Of course, there were fireworks, crashing power and phenomenal weight, but sometimes this is all we're given with Rachmaninov. Lugansky is alive to so much more, especially Rachmaninov's vocal lines. These are sometimes buried within the textures, with rapid motion surrounding them from above and below. Bringing these lines out, making them sing, and even managing the occasional duet, is the real virtuosity here. 

Lugansky is a cool performer yet never aloof, and his smile in response to enthusiastic applause showed genuine pleasure. That pleasure also shone through in those lyrical melodies, as much as in any song recital, notable in his shaping of the G flat Prelude, with breathing spaces for the melody. Amidst the cascading virtuosity and left-hand motion of the B flat Prelude, the rich baritone melody emerged singing, and the D major Prelude's Romantic song had liquid, stretching rubato from Lugansky, with the delicate ripples decorating the top. He also offered the full range of Rachmaninov's beloved bells, from an incredibly light touch in the high single notes at the end of that D major Prelude, to the weighty tolls at the end of the A flat Prelude. There are more in the Études-tableaux, with clanging bells at the climax of no. 7, and Lugansky contrasted this beautifully with its ominous opening, blurring pedalling adding to the mystery.

The Variations on a theme of Corelli (actually variations on the famous La Folia tune, used by Corelli as well as others) also gave Lugansky the opportunity to show us more variety, from the contemplative, chorale-like textures of the opening Theme and the 14th variation, and the 5th and 6th's spiky, nervy rhythms, to the final variations' driving gallops. Again, Lugansky was mesmerising in the rapid virtuosity, but it was in the Intermezzo's improvisatory melody, and the wandering arabesque of the 15th, with its insistent blue note, that he was at his most captivating.

In the Op.39 Études-tableaux, Lugansky showed us even more drive, with phenomenal, almost crazy rapid action at the top of the keyboard in no. 3. Yet once again, he could contrast this with the light, dancing rhythms in no. 4 to follow, with even a hint of humour here, a welcome touch amid the intensity of the programme. All these mood changes were brought together in the final Étude-tableau, with its dramatic opening, playful central moments, before Lugansky piled on the weight, building to a crashing conclusion. 

Surely this must have been an exhausting programme to deliver, yet Lugansky looked almost as relaxed and at ease as when he had first walked out onto the stage some two hours earlier, eagerly returning to offer two encores. His first was Rachmaninov's arrangement of Kreisler's Liebesleid, given a gloriously louche feel, with glassy right-hand filigree, and he followed this up with the short but driven Oriental Sketch, with its brief snippet of strange melody amidst the racing momentum. It was impossible not to delight in a performer so clearly at home in his repertoire, and I look forward to his return in May.