This disc, finely recorded in 2012, provides the ideal coupling of the two piano sonatas. This obvious coupling if far too rare as both sonatas are very fine and should both be staples of the regular repertoire for pianists of the calibre of Lugansky. Of the two, it is the second sonata that gets most attention but Lugansky makes a strong case for the first sonata which demands to be heard and reconsidered.
Lugansky's view of Rachmaninov differs from many international pianists of repute, but falls firmly into the category of Russian pianists. By this I mean that he does not view this, or indeed any other music that I have heard or seen him play, as in any way demonstrative of technical display. Instead he frequently favours a darker view of his chosen repertoire and gives deeply thoughtful but introspectively impassioned readings.
This may seem at first to be a contradiction in terms but actually seems appropriate to Rachmaninov's character described once by Stravinsky as a 'six foot scowl.' My own view is that Rachmaninov was a deeply unsettled man who never fully recovered from his early mauling by the Russian press over his first symphony. In addition, his enforced exile from Russia in effect left him emotionally homeless. All of these characteristics are brought out in his music by the finest pianists and Lugansky is certainly one of those. His own Russian character seems to blend naturally with Rachmaninov's musical psyche.
As Lugansky has the sort of limitless technique that seems to free him from all technical considerations, he is thus interpretively free to identify without compromise with the inner Rachmaninov. His performances of both sonatas are stupendous and easily match the best available on disc. Comparing his performance of the second sonata alone with the likes of Ashkenazy, Horowitz, Kocsis, Scherbakov, Shelley and Sudbin it becomes clear that this disc is really very special. it also is quite clear that generally, the Russians have the advantage of instinctive identification. It is therefore no surprise to find that this disc has received the coveted 'Diapson d'Or' award.
There are various versions of the second sonata - the original longer version, the shorter revised version of various hybrid versions combining the 'best' parts of both and often taking Horowitz's solution as the main guide. In this case Lugansky plays the first version combined with his own choices taken from the second version. It works well for me.
In conclusion, I would suggest that this disc warrants the most serious consideration as a first choice for those wishing to buy an 'only' version. For collectors who probably already have several discs I would suggest that this disc is well worth adding to the collection whatever versions are currently collected.
Some dialogue from the comments section that may offer further help:
Funny, but I was listening earlier today to a a CD of Rachmaninov's piano sonatas, played by a favorite of mine: Lugansky. I checked out the reviews while listening, as I often do, and there you were again! I concur entirely with your comments on his style of playing.
This is superlative. It is a winner all the way, and if I were to ransack the dictionary for hyperbolic expressions of commendation I doubt I could add anything significant to this simple statement. First I should probably note that the recording dates from 2012, when Lugansky would have been 40. That offers us a pianist in his prime and the chance of first-class up-to-date recorded sound. The sound is as good as I think I have yet heard, at least for piano sound. The instrument must be an 8-foot or 9-foot grand, and nothing less will do for Rachmaninov. So much for the instrument: what is then required is a player equal to the potential it offers.
Is this player, at long last, the giant we have been waiting for? Two sonatas by Rachmaninov, however magnificent the rendition, are not enough to confirm such a view, but good heavens they are sufficiently testing to offer us encouragement. Lugansky's technique is monumental, but these days the kind of finger-athleticism that in a previous generation was possessed only by Horowitz, Cziffra and Michelangeli seems to be the common property of dozens, scores and hundreds. An impression of sheer size is needed too, very much so if we are to talk about a 'giant'. And as well as size, the musical personality needs above all distinctiveness. That was Serkin's criterion: he possessed it in a big way, so did Horowitz and Richter and Michelangeli and Gould, and of course so did Rachmaninov himself as a player.
On any box-ticking basis Lugansky ticks them all with seeming ease. His tone is magnificent, and he never 'goes through' it or produces anything approaching an ugly sound. He shows terrific control in building a crescendo, and what impressed me in particular was just how high he can go on building it. Nor is his touch monotonous in the slightest. Quiet passages are played with sensitivity or sparkle, depending on the kind of quiet passage. Even in the most powerful sequences the clarity of the inner parts recalls Horowitz himself to me. Tempi seem fair and appropriate all the way through. Above all there is a sense of occasion about each sonata, something that the stature of the works themselves calls for. So would I recognise Lugansky if I heard him again? I need to hear more from him, but I am already hopeful.
The two sonatas don't amount to a disc bursting at the seams, but what would be a 'filler'? The Prelude in C# minor? Something by Liszt? Fur Elise? The whole notion of a filler just detracts from what this recital is, namely a major occasion. There is a liner note providing some useful information about the music and the background to its composition, as well as some standard puffery about Lugansky himself. It is also something of a rare treat to be given the first sonata. Rachmaninov (like Schumann) is largely treated by concert and recital schedulers as if he had only composed one sonata. Anyone completely new to the first sonata has rather a special introduction to it here. The liner note is brief about the alternative versions of the second sonata, mercifully so as the issue is my idea of a complete yawn. It is a magnificent work in any of the (slightly) differing versions. There is also a 'programme' to the first sonata, which leaves me equally apathetic. Playing like this reveals the stature of the music without any of that. It also excites me regarding what may turn out to be the stature of the player.
I was familiar with Rachmaninov's infrequently played first sonata from Alex Weissenberg's recording of it, and had felt it was unjustly neglected, though perhaps understandably considering the huge demands it places on the performer. Lugansky has given a performance that is immensely powerful - holding together the huge and perhaps, slightly unwieldily, architecture. The second sonata is much better known and is given a similarly powerful performance, though for me the value of this disc lies in the performance of the first sonata.
In all the years (and that's more years than I care to think about) I've been listening to Rachmaninov I've never heard better interpretations of this coupling of his Sonatas.
The lesser known No. 1 Sonata is now my favourite and I would have happily bought the CD just for that on it's own. It's so full of emotion it takes my breath away. Wonderful melodies and yet so powerful -- absolutely thrilling.
All together an outstanding performance from the great Russian Pianist Nikolai Lugansky.
So many words to describe Nikolai Lugansky in this repertoire, I happened to be reading Chekhov short stories while listening and it all came together. In my mind, Lugansky is the finest interpreter of Rachmaninov alive today. He perfectly captures the Spring-like freshness of the first Sonata, and the Autumnal ripeness of the wonderfully concise and bravura 2nd. There is a truely authentic Russianess that you also hear in his recordings of the Concertos and the Rhapsody, especially the later recording of the 3rd Concerto of which he is the finest exponent performing today.
The recordings were made in Potton Hall, the sound is fantastic.