This disc, along with the others in the series, has been the recipient of very opposing critical reviews. Essentially it did not appeal to the reviewer in the Gramophone who was far from welcoming. The BBC Music Magazine on the other hand liked the discs sufficiently to immediately make them their benchmark references at that time.
This underlines the very personal nature of reviewing, even within 'expert' magazines and therefore all reviews, including this one, should be read with that in mind.
Both magazines described the technical aspects of the piano playing, the orchestral accompaniment and the recording quality as being of very high quality. The divergence of opinion centred around the perceived emotional involvement or not of Lugansky. The Gramophone reviewer perceived him as being very cool and emotionally disengaged. The BBC magazine reviewer conversely found the playing to be completely emotionally engaged but in a rather cooler way than is often the case.
The issue therefore revolves around the concepts of coolness, being detached or being engaged and whether this perception communicates Rachmaninov's music to the listener sufficiently. It seems to me that this is as much about the reviewer as about Lugansky so I will add my own thoughts and observations on the matter as follows:
I own several CDs of Lugansky playing Rachmaninov and also the Chopin Eudes. I would agree that his playing style is on the cool side and would add that he often favours a darker palette than many when it comes to tonally or texturally balancing the notes that he is playing. This darker aspect is also reinforced by the way he brings out the weight in terms of the rhythmical aspects of the music being played. The Chopin etudes are the darkest set I have heard. Nothing is played that is not written, it is just a matter of emphasis and this makes a considerable difference. It shows Chopin in a different emotional light and that affects our own emotional response to both the music and the pianist too. These observations can be also be applied to Lugansky's Rachmaninov.
There is a DVD of Lugansky playing Rachmaninov in a concert at the Roque d'Antheron and here it is possible to witness Lugansky's tremendous technical abilities and also his total concentration on the music as the music reaches a very exciting conclusion in each case. All this is done with scarcely a glance at the keyboard, eyes often skyward, evident rapt internal concentration and no evidence of physical strain. This is a far cry from Lang Lang's more demonstrative expression of emotional attachment for example but certainly no less sincere or deeply felt.
I find these two concertos to include all that has been described as above. The speeds are generally fairly brisk, the climaxes are reached with surety and everything is very clearly laid before us sonically. The piano is well integrated with the orchestra which is a true partner to the piano rather than just an accompanist. The recording is wide ranging, well balanced and musically faithful.
There is undoubtedly an element of coolness and an element of the darker side too. There are many more emotionally overt Rachmaninov performances of note but these can be equally enjoyed in their own distinctive way. I also currently enjoy the recordings of these two concertos by Ashkenazy, Andsnes, van Cliburn, Hough, Michelangeli and Richter to place them in strictly alphabetical order.
In the end there are equally exalted places for all of these pianists in their own different ways. I would suggest that Lugansky belongs to the same exalted group. He will not appeal to everybody but he certainly is worth listening to, especially if you like your Rachmaninov slightly cool, dark, stirred but not shaken! My vote would go with the BBC magazine reviewer rather than the Gramophone representative on this occasion.
Some dialogue from the comments section that may offer further help:
One of your BEST Reviews Ian! Cogently argued and even-handed - definitely Food For Thought, and worthy of publication in The Gramophone.
Personally, I prefer "Emotionally Superheated but with Pinpoint Precision" as often demonstrated by Lang Lang ("Live in Vienna" & "Liszt Now"), Barenboim (Piano AND Conducting), Andsnes, Mutter, Rattle, and many others. Mutter in particular has been described as combining "Passion and Precision", but little Sarah Chang is not far behind!!
Best Wishes (U.K. review)