Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Chasse-neige (1852) [5.50]
Etude No. 10 in F Minor (1852) [4.51]
La Campanella (1851) [4.46]
Vallée d’Obermann (1855) [13.38]
Sposalizio (1858) [8.41]
Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este (1883) [7.37]
Sonnet de Pétrarque (1858) [6.50]
Isolde’s liebestode (1875) [6.47]
Feux follets (1852) [3.44]
Valse oubliée (1881) [2.45]
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
rec. June 2011, Potton Hall, UK

And so the Liszt bi-centenary year (2011) draws to a conclusion. As it does it is gratifying to see that Nikolai Lugansky has decided to add his own unique contribution to the proceedings with this fine recital. It is the only performance I have heard which matches Nelson Freire’s recital from earlier in the year. I particularly liked Lugansky’s selection which covers the full range of Liszt’s activities as a virtuoso, tone-painter and mystic. Lugansky achieves a remarkable degree of clarity in what are sometimes very dense and intricate piano textures. He sometimes adopts a dry, clean tone which reminded me of Rachmaninov’s piano playing. The programme notes tell us that Rachmaninov is a composer Lugansky reveres.

He begins his recital with two of Liszt’s ferociously difficult transcendental studies. The degree of technical finish and clarity in chasse-neige (or snow-storm) was quite extraordinary with the tremolos being finely grained and shaded. His performance lacked some of the bleakness and despair that one hears in Arrau’s wonderfully poetic account but it was exceptionally good nonetheless. Lugansky uses a wide variety of tone colours in the F minor etude adopting a very sec tone for the broken chord figurations. He achieves a high degree of thematic and structural coherence and conveys brilliantly the highly charged and impassioned nature of the piece.

La Campanella is one of Liszt’s Paganini etudes. The theme is based on one of Paganini’s famous Op. 1 caprices. Lugansky handles the awkward leaps and repeated notes superbly and succeeds in achieving a high degree of evenness while at the same time paying careful attention to articulation and phrasing. The carillon theme and growing concatenation of bell sounds is beautifully realised. Feux-follets is also one of Liszt’s transcendental studies and is generally regarded as one of the most technically demanding works in the repertoire. Richter sets the benchmark with his legendary live recording of the work at his recital in Sofia/ Kissin and Berezovsky have also left excellent recordings. Lugansky is marginally slower than these artists - although he chooses to play at this speed as there are other recordings of him playing the same piece faster on YouTube - but he achieves a degree of clarity and brings out textual details that I had not heard in previous recordings. He evokes beautifully the will-o’-the-wisp character with his lightness of touch, phrasing and articulation.

Like many others, Lugansky has chosen a selection of pieces from Années de pèlerinage to celebrate the bi-centenary. In Vallée d’Obermann he depicts the narrative arc of this large-scale work and the emotional journey in a coherent and compelling way. The dynamic, textural and tonal control are all exemplary. In Sposalizio, inspired by Raphael’s painting of the Virgin Mary to Joseph, Lugansky delineates exquisitely the long linear textures while the chordal progressions are beautifully nuanced and shaded. Lugansky’s performance of Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este is perhaps the best recording of this work I have ever heard. The opening arpeggios and figurations have a notable fluency and vibrancy. Lugansky’s playing of the ornate figurations convey a mystical impressionistic glow which helps to underline the religious significance of the piece. The articulation and phrasing are immaculate and the ornamentation exquisitely phrased and sculpted. Lugansky’s tone is silky and seductive in the Petrarch sonnet and its final filigree passage is played with cut-glass refinement.

In Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s liebestod, Lugansky brings out the dramatic trajectory of this wonderful monologue and weaves luminous iridescent figurations. The swelling and subsiding of intense emotions are magically captured and the final build-up and climax are thrilling before the drift into infinity. Lugansky concludes his recital with the first of Liszt’s Valses oubliées. Like Freire in his equally impressive recording, Lugansky brings out the textural and tonal contrast, adopting a crisp tone for the spiky opening section and more opulent colours for the amorous and cloying central sections. On balance, I thought Freire’s recording of this particular piece was marginally better but Lugansky’s performance is in much the same league. Outstandingly brilliant playing from one of the world’s foremost virtuosos.

Robert Beattie

Outstandingly brilliant playing from one of the world’s foremost virtuosos.