on 2 November 2011
This new Liszt recital, one of the most impressive to emerge in this bicentennial year, is about evenly divided between ferociously difficult etudes, both Transcendental and Paganini, and selections from Annees de pelerinage. To clarify the program, let me list it before making any comments.
Transcendental Study, S139 No. 12 'Chasse-neige'
Transcendental Study, S139 No. 10 'Appassionata'
Grande Étude de Paganini, S. 141 No. 3 'La Campanella'
Vallée d'Obermann (Années de pèlerinage I, S. 160 No. 6)
Sposalizio (Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 1)
Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este (Années de pèlerinage III, S. 163 No. 4)
Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 6)
Isolde's Liebestod (after Wagner), S447
Transcendental Study, S139 No. 5 'Feux Follets'
Valse oubliée No. 1, S.215/1
So far, my favorite release in the flood of Liszt piano recordings has come from Nelson Freire, a masterful musician who can turn dross to gold, and there's plenty of dross in Liszt to work with. Every vulgarism that piano playing is capable of began with this master showman, and the trick is to bring down the house while still extracting the music that lies beneath the trickery. No one can deny Liszt's gifts as a composer, yet equally undeniable is the cornball obviousness of his idiom. The saving grace of his piano compositions, for me at least, is that Liszt was born to write for the instrument; he inspires the greatest virtuosos to give of their best (leaving aside those few, like Serkin and Schnabel, who stay away).
I can only imagine that Liszt's star stands highest in Russia, given the great recordings left by Horowitz, Richter and Grigory Ginzburg, and the very fine ones from Gilels and Berman. Lugansky follows in their footsteps with a display of dazzling technique, real temperament, and the courage - perhaps the compulsion - to possess a strong personal slant. It's the last quality that sets him above a younger, not yet formed keyboard whiz like Lise de la Salle and Yuja Wang. Lugansky has become truly himself, and although he's not immediately recognizable like Horowitz and Richter, you can't miss his sense of command and the personal way that he interprets each piece.
Simply for that aspect, one can begin with Liszt's transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan, music that Horowitz recorded on his last CD for Sony. Lugansky stands up to such a strong, even crushing comparison. He phrases as freely as Horowitz but to my mind more naturally and with a greater sense that this began as vocal music. For another aspect, one turns to the Chasse-neige etude, delivered with such consummate ease and lightness that you forget technique altogether.
I've always noticed how decisively Lugansky goes his own way, the difference being that early on it was a way that seemed arbitrary and artificial too much of the time. But either he has grown or he has grown on me, because now I appreciate the sometimes quirky approach, as in Vallee d'Obermann, an evocation of grand Swiss scenery where most pianists move somberly, even gravely, building to thunder in the climax. At 13:40, Lugansky's timing isn't especially quick - Ginzburg takes a minute less, while Arrau takes a minute more - but he lets in more light and avoids grandeur. Lugansky shares a mercurial quality with another Russian, Mikhail Pletnev. I'd be tempted to call them the antiGilels of our time.
Finally, the aspect of technique can't be left out. When Vallee d'Obermann reaches its climax, Lugansky lets the sparks fly; he always has reserves of power, yet he rations his thunder and lightning. Like Ginzburg, his natural bent is to astonish us with fleetness and refinement in soft music. He civilizes the various knuckle-crunching etudes and makes them purr. I could also list some negative virtues: Lugansky isn't ponderous, vulgar, heartless, mechanical, brittle, or obsessed with playing to the gallery.
In fact, the question arises whether this outstanding album qualifies as one of the greatest Liszt recitals on disc. I'm not sure I can go that far, simply because two numbers, Valse oubliee no. 1 and Sonnet no. 123 of Petrarch, don't rise to the unforgettable level of Horowitz, Richter, and Ginzburg. In an age where so few pianists transcend the dazzling side of Liszt, Lugansky can, and that's enough for me to feel very grateful.