Classical CD Reviews

RACHMANINOV: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 – Nikolai Lugansky, piano – Naive

Two convincing performances of the Rachmaninov piano sonatas, which receive their finest and most pearly realization since those by Alexis Weissenberg almost a generation ago.

Published on November 12, 2012

RACHMANINOV: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 – Nikolai Lugansky, piano – Naive

RACHMANINOV: Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28; Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36 – Nikolai Lugansky, piano – Naive AM 208, 60:07 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Rachmaninov’s 1907 D Minor Piano Sonata has not amassed a devoted following, either in its adherents or its audience; yet, in terms of musical ambition, it represents his ultimate affinity for Liszt. Based on Goethe’s Faust, in the manner of Franz Liszt’s 1854 Eine Faust-Sinfonie, the three movements correspond to the character of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles, as they do in Liszt’s symphonic work. The premier of this grueling and demanding work came not from Rachmaninov but from Konstantin Igumnov. The richly-colored texture of the first movement, Allegro moderato, exploits intervals like the second and the fifth, the melody rising out of a welter of notes in the form of a doxology, a chant that indicates Rachmaninov’s essentially moral vision for his music. Lugansky extends the repeated question-and-answer phrasing with a lyrical theme lying within the Dorian mode that lends itself to the glittering triplets and chromatic runs we know from Etudes tableaux and assorted preludes.

The ostinati and repeated tropes may owe their influence, however, less to Liszt the symphonist than to the structure of the Dante Sonata, especially in the layering of motifs. The size of the musical evolution seems to depend on the size of the artist’s technique; and in Lugansky’s case, the results prove formidable.

The second movement, Lento, represents the gentle, even submissive, Gretchen. The drooping motif adumbrates the Mahler Ninth that would appear just a few years later. The relatively tranquil nocturne – almost reminiscent of liquid Scriabin – assumes more drama at the Piu mosso middle section, in which Lugansky moves from aerial runs and trills to stormy passion. The similarity of the texture to the contemporaneous Isle of the Dead could hardly be more evident. Any doubts dissipate at the tolling of the ubiquitous Dies Irae in the Mephistopheles movement. Stamina and expressive power mark the last movement, and Lugansky must create an often contrapuntal equivalent for the most famous of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltzes as Faust and Mephistopheles attend a galloping witches’ sabbath. Gretchen’s two appearances add an element of bittersweet sensuous melancholy. Gretchen’s interventions, however, do not alter Faust’s tragic, infernal fate in Rachmaninov’s vision. At several moments within Lugansky’s superheated performance, he suggests a technical virtuoso link between Rachmaninov and the stretti we find in Busoni transcriptions. The quite terrific coda brings a majestic interpretation to a definitive close.

The 1913 Second Sonata in its original version offers a young piano firebrand plenty of opportunities for stunning bravura; Lugansky has selectively adjusted the score with some concessions to the cuts in the later revision. His playing balances size and sensitivity, the liquid portions of the Allegro agitato nuanced and taut, especially when Rachmaninov transitions into his weighty chordal textures. Lugansky emphasizes the composer’s predilection for carillon effects, passing and tolling bells. A passionate angst permeates the movement, what Lugansky feels portrays the sensibility of a war-torn Russia, a devastated world view. That the riffs and sequences vibrate with patterns we find in the D Minor Piano Concerto comes as no surprise. In his potent filigree, Lugansky brings an electric excitement to the score we associate with the Horowitz renditions of this sonata. The Lento, happily, extends the color magic, with Lugansky’s application of chromatic polyphony for the composer’s more intimate thoughts. We feel Rachmaninov communes with the nostalgia of fellow countrymen Scriabin and Medtner. Marked Allegro molto, the last movement pens with thoughtful chords; then, it hurtles forward in a toccata fashion whose punishing line Lugansky does not break. Lugansky calls the movement “impulsive,” a contest between passion and fury. A pained introspection invades the tumult, whose winds might form the equivalent for the Francesca da Rimini vision of tormented love in Dante. After all, Rachmaninov soon suffered a forced exile from his native land, and he never did return. Superb piano sound captures the Lugansky experience, courtesy of Nicolas Bartholomee from Potton Hall, May 2012.

—Gary Lemco

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