By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
He's just 31, but already Nikolai Lugansky is being called "the next one" in the line of great Russian pianists.
Lugansky will make his Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra debut playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4 this weekend.
Modest and easy-going over the phone from his home in Moscow, the pianist says there was never a turning point when he knew music would be his life.
"I became a concert pianist before I thought about it," says Lugansky. "When you study in (Moscow's) Central Music School and you're 7 years old, you've already played in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, one of the best halls of Russia. If you are good, you play more and more in other cities. Then, you play abroad. ... So it starts before a young man thinks what he wants to be. It became my life."
Whether or not he plays in the style of legendary Russian pianists like Emil Gilels or Sviatoslav Richter - the latter one of his idols - is a moot point. Lugansky's recordings of Rachmaninoff and Chopin on the Erato label reveal an exciting technique - as well as sensitivity, color and transparency.
There are many misconceptions about how to play Rachmaninoff, says the pianist, who calls the lesser-known Concerto No. 4 "one of my favorite piano concertos."
"It's probably (the most) personal, intimate piano concerto of Rachmaninoff," he says, searching for the right words in English. "It's a document of his private tragedy. It's one of his darkest pieces for piano and orchestra. There's this - how to say this - ache of his soul."
Rachmaninoff's melodic language may be romantic, but it is based almost always on ancient Russian Orthodox melodies, he adds.
"Many famous themes of Rachmaninoff - things like Vocalise, or the main theme of the Third Piano Concerto - sound very romantic, but it is church music," he says. "To speak about it is very easy. But to play - you must live inside of this music."
Lugansky began playing piano at age 5, after his parents, both scientists, discovered that their son had perfect pitch. If there was a turning point, it was meeting his teacher, legendary pianist Tatiana Nikolaeva, who pronounced him "the next one."
When his teacher died in 1993, Lugansky had a difficult decision. Should he perform in the famed Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994, while still mourning the good friend who had helped him prepare for it? Feeling numb, he went ahead - and won the gold medal.
After that, his career took off. He won a recording contract with Erato, releasing his first album in 1999.
Now Lugansky is stepping up his presence in the United States. After Cincinnati, he will make his New York debut at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lugansky has just finished recording a Prokofiev recital disc, and plans include Rachmaninoff's Concertos Nos. 2 and 4. However, anxious not to be pigeonholed as a Russian specialist, Lugansky says he is equally at home with Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and hopes to play more Ravel.
"Pianists are very lucky," he says. "There are so many great works for piano, we don't have time to play it."
If you go
What: The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Stephane Deneve, guest conductor; Nikolai Lugansky, pianist
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Music Hall
Tickets: $13-$54; $10 students; other discounts. 381-3300 or www.cincinnatisymphony.org
The program: Rachmaninoff, The Rock; Concerto No. 4; Faure, Suite from Pelleas et Melisande; Albert Roussel, Suite No. 2 from Bacchus et Ariane.
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