Lugansky shows mastery at Ravinia with exquisite Schubert and Grieg

Wed Aug 05, 2015 at 12:46 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Pianist Nikolai Lugansky performed a recital Tuesday night at Ravinia's Martin Theatre. Photo: Caroline Doutre
Pianist Nikolai Lugansky performed a recital Tuesday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre. Photo: Caroline Doutre

Nikolai Lugansky took the stage at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre Tuesday night in white tie and tails, and proceeded to deliver an exquisite, old-fashioned piano recital. In his first return to Ravinia since his 1997 debut, Lugansky proved a consummate yet unobtrusive artist who allowed the 19th-century music of his program to speak for itself.

Lugansky opened the evening with the Ravinia premiere of Schubert’s Two Scherzos, D. 593. He imbued the main theme of the Scherzo in B-flat (marked Allegretto) with an irresistible Viennese lilt, just perceptibly hesitating on beats two and three of its triple-metered bars. The Scherzo in D-flat (Allegro moderato) had idiomatic fluctuations of mood, which Lugansky highlighted with robust but unforced fortes and supple dolce playing.

Schubert’s late Sonata in C Minor, D. 958 constituted the remainder of the first half and further showcased Lugansky’s singular refinement. His effortless technique shone in the brooding first movement, most conspicuously in the urgent, highly chromatic development, and his dynamic control in the closing section.

In the prayer-like middle movement, the piano writing is almost orchestral, with different textures and articulations called for simultaneously. Particularly impressive was Lugansky’s staccato accompaniment supporting the soaring meditative lines, and the refined manner in which he highlighted the subtle harmonic variations at each return of the main theme. The Menuetto was elegant, even genteel, and the galloping final Allegro maniacal in its predominantly minor mode and effervescent in its major sections.

The second half opened with more  Ravinia premieres in three Lyric Pieces by Grieg. The brief “Arietta,” a favorite of the composer’s, received delicate treatment from Lugansky, and the ensuing “Sommerfugl” was executed with emphatic precision. Lugansky finished the set with “Bryllupsdog på Troldhaugen,” its open harmonies evocative of a Norse landscape and demanding pages all but an afterthought in the pianist’s hands.

Also receiving its first performance at Ravinia was the work that closed the program—Tchaikovsky’s Piano Sonata in G Major (“Grand Sonata”). The piece received critical acclaim after its 1878 premiere, but has struggled to find a consistent place on modern concert programs.

Despite Lugansky’s passionate advocacy, the reason for this was clear—the ponderous, sprawling score offers little for listeners to hold on to, and the thread of the work is easily lost in its repetitive pyrotechnics.

Nonetheless, Lugansky’s rendition of the first movement’s bell-like main theme was snappy and the wistful opening of the second movement affectingly vulnerable. The third movement’s abundant fifths were punched out with gusto, and Lugansky dazzled in the breakneck flurry of the finale.

Lugansky played three judiciously succinct encores. He turned to Rachmaninoff for the first two, offering a sublime rendition of the Etude-Tableau Op. 33 No. 8, which he followed with a fiery reading of the Moment Musical Op. 16 No. 4. Lugansky closed the evening eloquently spinning the Canzona Serenata by Russian composer Nikolai Medtner.

Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 with Peter Serkin.

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