Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.14 in C sharp minor Op27 No.2 “Moonlight” [16:41]
Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor Op31 No.2 “Tempest” [25:18]
Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor Op57 “Appassionata” [26:04]
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
rec. July 2021 at Teatro Ristori, Verona, Italy
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902442 [68:03]
This is big boned Beethoven in the grand Russian style. For all the passion and drama in these works, my overriding impression was of imperious calm. Lugansky has iron fingers and an impregnable technique and there is never any sense that these pieces threaten to overwhelm him. This is not to suggest that he is in any way detached or remote. My intention is to evoke an artist in full confidence of his mastery. Though the sound he makes at the piano is very different there is something of Gilels’ Beethoven about this recording.
The choice of repertoire influences proceedings but this is anyway very serious Beethoven. I don’t think I have ever heard such a heavyweight account of the almost too famous first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. This is no pellucid nocturne. It had me thinking of the slow movements of the Eroica and of the Funeral March Sonata.
Similarly, the slow movement of Appassionata offers very little in the way of softer emotion however beautifully Lugansky spins out the long lines of the melody and its variations. Perhaps I wanted a bit more relief from the tempestuous outer movements but it is nothing if not a compelling vision of the movement.
There is a crispness to Lugansky’s sound even when Beethoven is pouring out torrents of notes but it would be wrong I think to characterise these as classical accounts of these famous works. In the final pages of the Moonlight’s finale, we are aware of head and heart in balance rather than one taking precedence over the other. Lugansky can rage but never to point of running out of control. I do miss the sense in Schnabel’s recording of this finale that we are very close to the cliff edge indeed but Lugansky has many other virtues, not least a deep sense of melancholy that sings through the storming upheavals. At least in the finale of the Appassionata, Lugansky’s tempo for the main section leaves him somewhere to go when he reaches the concluding Presto bolt for home.. Schnabel’s recording descends into a gabble of notes at this point.
Comparing Lugansky’s Moonlight to another distinguished recentish recording by Murray Perahia on DG illustrates a relative absence of fantasy in the Russian’s playing. With Perahia’s exceptional account, we stop hearing virtuoso piano playing and are gripped by Beethoven’s extraordinary poetic visions.
I think this becomes even more of an issue in the fugitive atmosphere of the Tempest. I think it is a mistake to play this work as though it were the Appassionata. To my ears, this is not Beethoven in fire and fury mode but dealing with stranger, murkier aspects of the human experience. Push this music too hard and that haunted quality evaporates like mists on a remote moor. In this regard, I did find Lugansky a little too forthright, particularly in the first movement. For others, this will be exactly how like their Beethoven. I would contrast it with Brendel’s way with the movement, notably in his earliest recording of it. Brendel’s playing is as crisp as Lugansky’s but he takes us to a wholly different place. There is no lack of intensity but the difference is like that between a soliloquy and a grand address. For me, the first movement must match the even more elusive mood of the finale for the sonata to work as a whole.
What Lugansky gets absolutely right is the character of the finale. For once, we get a genuine allegretto and what a different it makes! It enables him to weave fairy cobwebs in a way Beethoven surely intended. His pointing of the delicate shifts in rhythmic emphasis is exquisite and there is no lack of adventure as he scales his mighty technique down. It is probably the most impressive thing on an impressive disc. I have lost count of the number of recordings I have discarded on account of mangling this movement so Lugansky has my deepest thanks for getting so deep under its skin.
Lugansky’s Beethoven has a lot to recommend it: it is direct and fully in tune with the revolutionary nature of the music; his calm demeanour means that everything is done with immense clarity and sense of purpose with nothing sensationalised. These qualities are immensely refreshing in this oft recorded repertoire. If I wanted more in the way of fantasy and, frankly, a little more risk taking then that is not to take away anything from Lugansky’s noble and humane vision of the composer’s work. Beethoven is a broad church and I am very grateful to have sampled this particular denomination.