“His performance blazes with conviction, a propulsion and energy finely complemented with an innate sense of poetry.”—Gramophone

One of the leading Russian pianists today, Nikolai Lugansky makes his 92Y debut with overlooked rarities by Tchaikovsky, the “most Russian composer of all,” according to Stravinsky.

Lugansky’s program juxtaposes the piano music of Schubert and Tchaikovsky, both masters of melody. But while Schubert wrote two dozen piano sonatas (D. 958 is among his last and most dramatic), Tchaikovsky finished only two, and both have been far overshadowed by his symphonies and ballets. Somewhat better known is Tchaikovsky’s charming The Seasons, a set of 12 short character pieces, representing each month.


Read a Q&A with Mr. Luganksy about his program, his experiences in New York City and more.

Nikolai Lugansky, piano

SCHUBERT: Two Scherzos, D. 593
SCHUBERT: Sonata in C minor, D. 958
TCHAIKOVSKY: Selections from The Seasons, Op. 37b
TCHAIKOVSKY: Sonata in G major, Op. 37


This concert is approximately one hour forty minutes long.

 

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Nikolai Lugansky plays Rachmaninov Sonate No. 2

Explore the Music

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Q&A with Nikolai Lugansky

Prior to his 92Y recital debut on March 24, Nikolai talked with 92Y about his recital program, his thoughts on American audiences and other topics.

How did you choose this recital program? Is there a relationship between Schubert and Tchaikovsky?

There is, though I’m not playing these two composers as a deliberate pairing. In creating a new recital program every year, I generally I don’t have a particular method or system. I just choose music that I love and want to work with. I try to play works that I haven’t played before in the past.

For example, I love the Schubert C-minor Sonata. I hadn’t played much Schubert until about two years ago, and I had heard an incredible performance of this Sonata years ago by Radu Lupu. After that, I knew I knew I wanted to play it someday; this season is the first time I’m playing it publicly.

What similarities do you see between the composers?

First of all, neither composer was really prepared for the severity of life, especially Schubert. Both were unbelievably nice people, and rather naïve. Being a classical composer can be hard, and there have been strong, sometimes even dictatorial, composers. Schubert and Tchaikovsky were never like this—in many ways they were defenseless against the realities of life.

Also, neither were piano virtuosos. Their music is genius, but they were not particularly great instrumentalists. Their music is not always accommodating to the pianist, in contrast to Chopin, Liszt, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, even Beethoven.

This is especially true with Tchaikovsky. One of the reasons why his Sonata in G major isn’t performed more often is that it is physically very uncomfortable to play. Because Rachmaninoff was a pianist, he knew how to write for a piano. Even though Rachmaninoff’s music is extremely difficult, in terms of physicality, it is a joy to play.

Tchaikovsky however wrote symphonically—the “Grand” Piano Sonata is really a big symphony for the keyboard. So when he was writing it, he wasn’t thinking about the pianists who would have to play it! I played it for my 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition, but I haven’t played it since.

Do the similarities extend to the program?

Yes, in both the Schubert and Tchaikovsky sonatas the theme of life and death is very important. This theme is almost intuitive in Schubert. You can hear death in much of his music—it’s very strong. We know that so much of his greatest music was written in the last year of his life, though we do need to remember that that Schubert didn’t know that. In fact, just before he died, he was starting a study of counterpoint and polyphony.

For Tchaikovsky, the struggle of life and death is also important, but in this case life is victorious. The second movement is very tragic, but the Sonata ends in joy; life has won over. Ironically, that may also partly explain why this Sonata is not played very much. People seem to like Tchaikovsky’s darker music; this joyous side of Tchaikovsky isn’t always so successful with audiences.

How did you fill out the rest of the program?

Initially I wanted to open the program with Schubert’s Allegretto in C minor, but that would have meant an entire first half of minor music, and I didn’t want that. So I chose these two delightful Scherzos, which also aren’t performed very often. Schubert wrote them when he was young—there are no life or death issues here.

Tchaikovsky’s Seasons is very popular in Russia but not so well known elsewhere. And happily, Tchaikovsky is much more pianistic in this work, so it’s more of a pleasure to play.

You mentioned Radu Lupu. Are there other performances or artists that have particularly moved you?

There have been many, and I’m reluctant to name them, but certainly Sviatoslav Richter. I saw him several times, including an unforgettable performance in Amsterdam. I also had the great pleasure to have heard Martha Argerich play the Schumann Piano Concert a month ago in Walt Disney Hall. And my teacher, Tatiana Nikolayeva, was a fantastic pianist; I got to play some piano four-hand with her.

What do you listen to? What’s on your iPod right now?

Actually, I don’t have an iPod. I admit I’m rather lazy when it comes to the new technologies. I’m very happy with my CD player. In terms of recordings, above all there is Rachmaninoff. I also enjoy Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Emil Gilels out of the former masters, and Nelson Freire and Krystian Zimerman of the living ones.

I’ve just discovered a composer that I never really knew—Ralph Vaughan Williams. His Fifth Symphony is one of the greatest pieces I’ve heard. I also enjoy listening to Bruckner, Sibelius and lesser-known Russians like Glazunov.

Is there any difference between audiences in the US and Europe or Russia?

Yes, American audiences are very friendly, but I have noticed that American applause is very loud, with lots of “Bravos,” and then it ends quickly. In Germany there isn’t as much shouting but the applause lasts much longer. I have noticed that New York audiences seem very respectful of their great tradition: Rachmaninoff gave 15-20 recitals here, and Tchaikovsky opened Carnegie Hall.

What do you like to do when you’re in New York?

I’ve been to New York several times. My last time was October 29, 2012. It was to be my New York Philharmonic premiere with Charles Dutoit, and I was scheduled to play Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. I was coming from Birmingham, Alabama—and then Hurricane Sandy hit. By the time I finally arrived, we had lost rehearsal time. Luckily, I had just played Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto with Maestro Dutoit a few weeks earlier in Boston, which meant less rehearsal time would be required. So we changed the program and I played the Concerto instead of the Rhapsody.

When I’m here I enjoy walking through Central Park and visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I have performed, and I love Carnegie Hall. However, there are just too many buildings here for me—I like to see the sun or sky without hurting my neck.

I have never really tasted New York, though. When you’re a classical artist, you arrive in a city, sometimes on the same day; you rest; you perform; and you usually leave the next day. There is much I want to do here—I still have never been to the Metropolitan Opera!

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FRANZ SCHUBERT: Two Scherzos, D. 593

FRANZ SCHUBERT

Born in Vienna, January 31, 1797; died in Vienna, November 19, 1828
Two Scherzos, D. 593
Composed in 1817; 10 minutes

Franz Schubert reportedly played the piano quite well, but he was not a performing virtuoso of the caliber of Beethoven or Hummel. And yet Schubert’s piano writing exhibits both the natural lyricism so evident in his lieder as well as an innate and idiomatic pianism that expressed, at least as freely as Beethoven, the aesthetic ideals of Romanticism.

In 1817, just after his 20th birthday, Schubert began writing a number of piano sonatas, probably intended for friends. By the end of the year he was left with some short, “orphaned” ideas that didn’t find a home in any of the larger works. Two of these miniatures—a pair of Scherzos in B-flat and D-flat—were published together much later, in 1871, as independent character pieces. True to the scherzo’s origins as a musical joke or jest, Schubert’s Scherzo in B-flat is witty, but without resorting to the faster tempi that typify later works in the genre. The “jest” in this case is the awkward fauxelegance of the main theme, with its deliberately clunky flourishes. The trio, in E-flat, is somewhat more secure in its lilting grace.

The second Scherzo, a boisterous little trifle, is in the “amateur-unfriendly” key of D-flat major. Like its companion, the D-flat Scherzo also explores some unexpected modulations. The scherzo’s gentle trio section also managed to find a permanent home in the third movement of Schubert’s Sonata in E-flat, D. 568, composed in the same year.

© 2015, Luke Howard

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FRANZ SCHUBERT: Sonata in C minor, D. 958

FRANZ SCHUBERT

Sonata in C minor, D. 958
Composed in 1828; 31 minutes

Schubert’s 21 piano sonatas were deeply influenced by the structural designs and early Romantic techniques that Beethoven had already explored and developed. Beethoven’s influence is even more pronounced in Schubert’s last three sonatas, generally regarded as a trilogy, which were sketched during the summer of 1828 and then completed during a four-week period of intense activity in September that year.

Although these sonatas are indebted to Beethoven for their forms and compositional procedures, they are more innately lyrical and less derivative than one might think. As the famed Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel observed, Schubert’s familiarity with Beethoven’s sonatas “taught him to be different …. Schubert relates to Beethoven, he reacts to him, but he follows him hardly at all. Similarities of motif, texture or formal pattern never obscure Schubert’s own voice. Models are concealed, transformed, surpassed.” Within this trilogy, this Sonata in C minor, D. 958, is the most somber. It’s tempting to imagine that in this work, composed in a key Beethoven reserved for his most impassioned musical statements, Schubert hoped to explore Beethovenian depths of pianistic drama in the months immediately following the great master’s death.

Indeed, if the opening theme of the first movement, Allegro, sounds Beethovenian, it’s with good reason. It seems to have been inspired by the theme Beethoven himself wrote for an 1806 set of piano variations, also in the key of C minor (WoO. 80). In sonata-allegro form, this theme transitions to the relative major (E-flat) for a lighter, homophonic passage that leavens the drama somewhat. The development section becomes increasingly chromatic before a recapitulation reprises the themes in stable harmonies. A coda recycles some of the development section’s ideas, winding them down to a resigned C-minor conclusion.

For the slow movement, Adagio, Schubert shifts to A-flat major. Opening with a hymn-like chorale, this rondo movement then moves into a contrasting B section that creeps harmonically through sinister sforzandi. The wandering left hand in this section is allowed to persist when the A theme returns. The reprise of the B section is even more chromatic and troubling, the oppositions more sudden and unpredictable. The fragmentary final statement of the chorale seems attenuated by the preceding theatrics, but manages to close serenely.

The brief Menuetto and Trio that follow compensate for their concision with added mystery, eccentricity and restlessness. A galloping allegretto tarantella written in an adaptation of sonata-allegro form, then serves as the work’s finale. In a characteristic Schubert design, the exposition moves through three keys instead of the expected two. The impulsive tarantella rhythm keeps propelling the themes to their fortissimo conclusion in the home key of C minor.

© 2015, Luke Howard

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PYOTR IL’YICH TCHAIKOVSKY: Excerpts From The Seasons, Op. 37B

PYOTR IL’YICH TCHAIKOVSKY

Born in Votkinsk, Russia, May 7, 1840; died in St. Petersburg, November 6, 1893
Excerpts From The Seasons, Op. 37B
Composed in 1875–76; 11 minutes

It is commonly held that Tchaikovsky was not especially talented as a pianist. Even though he studied piano in his youth, he reportedly gave it up long before becoming a composer. But some of Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries recounted that later in his life he played the piano with confidence and style when among friends. And though he showed little real enthusiasm for the instrument, he composed more than 100 works for solo piano. Most of them are charming miniatures for students and amateurs, but some of them are more challenging and rewarding, even for accomplished pianists. Certainly, the piano writing in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 from 1875 amply demonstrated that he understood the dramatic potential of the piano as profoundly as any other composer.

Soon after the concerto’s premiere, Tchaikovsky was commissioned by a St. Petersburg music magazine to write a set of short character pieces, one for each month of the year. After composing “January” and “February” in late 1875, and completing the next few installments sporadically after that, he worked on the remainder in April and May of 1876, just after finalizing the orchestration for Swan Lake.

This suite, published collectively as The Seasons, was not a major commission for the composer, who readily took on “pot-boiler” assignments such as this as a way of augmenting his income. But that doesn’t mean they’re not musically worthwhile. Rachmaninoff used “November,” for example, as a favored encore in his recital programs, and the Barcarolle (“June”) has been subjected to numerous arrangements that have greatly enhanced its prominence.

“January: By the Hearth” borrows its subtitle from Schumann’s 1838 Kinderszenen. It shares with its model a nostalgic, narrative quality, though with the added ambiguity of Slavic accentuation patterns in the declamatory rhythms. A sleepy, descending scale pattern suggests some dozing in the middle of the conversation before the narrative thread picks up again for the repeat of the opening. Finally, the embers flicker and fade, and the story is concluded. In “August: The Harvest,” there is sense of nervous urgency at the opening, perhaps reflecting the bustle of activity at harvest time. The contrasting middle section is more reflective, but the activity must resume if the harvest is to be completed.

“November: On the Troika” is the most technically advanced piece of the set. In its imitation of bells and the light prancing of the central section, it evokes two primary meanings of the Russian word troika: a three-person folk dance and a team of three horses pulling a carriage or sleigh. The simplicity of the melody allows for a variety of accompanimental patterns that demonstrate delicate, rapid passagework.

© 2015, Luke Howard

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PYOTR IL’YICH TCHAIKOVSKY: Sonata in G major, Op. 37

PYOTR IL’YICH TCHAIKOVSKY

Sonata in G major, Op. 37
Composed in 1878; 33 minutes

The most ambitious and technically demanding of Tchaikovsky’s solo piano works is unquestionably the Grand Piano Sonata in G major, Op. 37, from 1878. It was not his only piano sonata—an 1865 “student” sonata was published as Tchaikovsky’s Op. 80 some years after his death. But the G-major Sonata overshadows its sibling in proportions and aspirations, and it is the only solo piano composition to be considered among Tchaikovsky’s major works. The previous year, 1877, had been traumatic for the composer; he had been plunged into an acute financial crisis, his musical inspiration had all but dried up, and his marriage to Antonina Milyukova ended painfully in separation after two months (largely, but not entirely, due to the composer’s homosexuality). By the start of 1878, Tchaikovsky was psychologically and artistically wounded.

While also working on his Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky found it challenging to muster enthusiasm for a second major work, especially for an instrument that could irk him at the best of times. “[The piano sonata] does not come easily,” he wrote to his brother Anatoly in the spring. “I’m again having to force myself to work … to squeeze out weak and rotten little themelets, and ruminate over each measure. But I keep at it, and hope that the inspiration will suddenly strike.”

Tchaikovsky approached this sonata symphonically, playing to his strengths when a compositional task proved problematic. The first movement, Moderato e risoluto, opens with a bold theme—a march-like “Grand Motif ”—that recurs throughout the work. The Tranquillo second theme in this sonata-allegro movement is, expectedly, more poignant and lyrical. A mosaic of Russian-flavored melodies and recitative-like declamations then emerges, employing techniques intended to evoke orchestral sounds.

The expansive slow movement, Andante non troppo quasi moderato alternates a harmonized descending scale with two secondary themes that more clearly reveal Tchaikovsky’s lyrical gifts. The opening scale and its twonote “melody” seem to have been modeled directly on Chopin’s E-minor Prelude, Op. 28 No. 4, while the other themes offer a nod to Robert Schumann, one of the strongest influences on Tchaikovsky’s piano writing.

Returning to the home key, the brief but nimble third movement Scherzo: Allegro giocoso, contrasts a rippling theme in the middle section with spritely, syncopated and angular motifs that characterize the opening and close. The energy of the Scherzo then increases a notch in the finale, Allegro vivace, a bravura showpiece that loiters in more reserved byways between the virtuosic passagework of the recurring rondo theme.

© 2015, Luke Howard

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Artist Bio

Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Making his 92Y debut with tonight’s recital, International Tchaikovsky Competition Silver Medalist Nikolai Lugansky is a pianist of extraordinary depth and versatility. His concerto engagements for the 2014/15 season and beyond include the London and Czech philharmonics, Philharmonia Orchestra, Budapest Festival Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony and Orchestre de Paris. Mr. Lugansky is also touring with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Oslo Philharmonic, the Russian National Orchestra, and the Oslo and St. Petersburg philharmonics.

As a recital and chamber musician, Mr. Lugansky’s appearances this season include the Alte Oper Frankfurt, London’s Wigmore Hall, the Konzerthaus Berlin, Vienna’s Konzerthaus, Paris’s Theatre des Champs-Elysees, and the Great Halls of the Moscow Conservatory of Music and the St Petersburg Philharmonia. Among his chamber music collaborators are violinists Joshua Bell, Leonidas Kavakos and Vadim Repin; cellists Mischa Maisky and Alexander Kniazev; and soprano Anna Netrebko.

Mr. Lugansky is artistic director of the Rachmaninoff Festival in Tambov, Russia, and he is a supporter of, and regular performer at, the Rachmaninoff Estate and Museum of Ivanovka. Last summer he made his debuts at Aspen and Tanglewood, and he regularly appears at the BBC Proms and the festivals of Edinburgh, La Roque d’Antheron, Verbier and Rheingau.

An award-winning recording artist, Mr. Lugansky records exclusively for the Naive-Ambroisie label. His most recent disc, featuring the two Chopin Piano Concertos with Alexander Vedernikov and the Sinfonia Varsovia, was released last year and was named a Gramophone Editor’s Choice. He has received numerous Diapason d’Or and Echo Klassik awards, including both for his recital CD of Rachmaninoff ’s two piano sonatas. His recording of Grieg and Prokofiev’s piano concertos with Kent Nagano and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin was another Gramophone Editor’s Choice. In 2011 he and Vadim Repin won a BBC Music magazine award for their disc of chamber music by Franck, Grieg and Janáček.

Nikolai Lugansky was born in Moscow to parents who were research scientists. He studied at Moscow’s Central Music School and the Moscow Conservatory. Among his early honors, he won First Prize at the All-Union Competition in Tbilisi, the Silver Medal at the 8th International Bach Competition in Leipzig and Second Prize at the Rachmaninoff Competition in Moscow. In April 2013 Mr. Lugansky was awarded the honor of People’s Artist of Russia.

Photo: Marco Borggreve/Naave-Ambroisie

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