How the RSNO grabbed Nikolai Lugansky for a pair of Prokofiev concertos

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IT’S not the first time someone from the old Eastern Bloc has claimed that opportunities were more straightforward, and easier to come by, under the old Communist rule.

Nikolai Lugansky, the brilliant 40-year-old Moscow-born pianist, winner of many prestigious competitions and former silver medallist in the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition (there was no outright winner that year) certainly has a sentimental fondness for some – just some – of the ways things were.

For instance, he’s never found it more difficult than at present, under the new UK visa regulations, to get the paperwork necessary to allow him to be in Edinburgh and Glasgow this week to perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3 with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. As recently as last week, he was sitting in his Moscow home, genuinely concerned it might not be processed in time.

Well, the RSNO can breathe a sigh of relief. Lugansky’s visa came through, so he will appear alongside fellow Russian Mikhail Tatarnikov, conductor and musical director of the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St Petersburg and a replacement in this programme for the indisposed Neeme Järvi.

This week’s visit is one of three Lugansky is making to Scotland this year. He is performing twice at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival: in a solo recital at the Queen’s Hall that has Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux at its heart; and two concerto performances (Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Concertos) with Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra at the Usher Hall. Then he’s back with the RSNO again, as part of its 2013-14 Season.

Lugansky’s connection with the RSNO goes back several years. “I’ve played with the RSNO on a number of occasions, under Stéphane Denève and Alexander Lazarev, in concertos by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky,” he says, but his current focus is on the Prokofiev concerto he is performing this weekend.

Why should we be excited? Think back no further than Lugansky’s Edinburgh Festival duo appearance last year with the violinist Leonidas Kavakos – a spellbinding tour de force that saw two superb musicians combine in an utterly class act that, through its interpretational depth, was far greater than the sum of its parts. Lugansky, while nominally accompanying, was an extraordinary presence – respectful of his role, but making every note, every nuance, count.

So an opportunity to hear him solely in the limelight is a tantalising prospect, especially in a concerto that has at its heart the visceral essence of the Russian spirit – the timeless autumnal melancholy oozing from its folk-like opening melody, cast aside in no time by the vigorous energy of the opening allegro. It’s a work that benefits most from a pianist with a Russian heart as well as Russian fingers.

Lugansky is purebred on both counts, having been born in Moscow in 1972 of Russian scientist parents, and believing from an early age that he was “predestined to become a pianist” – he sat down at the piano at the age of five and astounded his father by playing a Beethoven sonata he had learnt by ear.

“My father discovered I had perfect pitch – something, as a physicist, he thought didn’t really exist. It was such a surprise, that he decided to enrol me in Moscow’s music school system.”

These were the days of Soviet communism, of course: a regime that Lugansky remembers with some degree of affection.

“It was a great era for anyone interested in medicine or some form of special education,” he says. “The same opportunities were there for everyone, and they were free. For an aspiring musician, the Moscow system didn’t waste time – it brought you into early contact with the best private teachers.”

Lugansky, who eventually entered the Central School of Music in Moscow at seven, took lessons with Tatiana Kestner and, following her death, with Tatiana Nikolaeva, who became a huge influence on the young pianist. “Her teaching went beyond technique, which she believed was a response to a musical demand, and that the important thing was how we think about music, how we listen to it.”

By the age of nine, regular recitals were a standard part of Lugansky’s musical education. “I was already auditioning for concerts in the small hall of the Central Music School, and performing concertos outside Moscow,” he says. “But my first real recital was in Moscow when I was 12, in a concert played in memory of my first teacher.”

For all that the old system worked to Lugansky’s benefit, the revolution of the late 1980s came at just the right time for the then 15-year old. “As things freed up, more foreign pianists began to come to Moscow, and it was interesting to hear them alongside the great Russian ones.” At the same time, Lugansky’s own ability to travel made it possible for him to perform at the prestigious music industry congress MIDEM in Cannes in 1988, where he played duets with Nikolaeva. “I was able to come to Europe every year after that.”

But what about the Russian piano tradition, which was, some would argue, fed by the protected hothouse environment of the Soviet regime? “It’s still at a very high level in Moscow,” Lugansky says. As a piano professor at the Moscow Conservatoire he should know.

But in other areas of musical endeavour, he sees a slippage in standards brought about by social change.

“It’s not so easy for violinists now, where the standard is a little below what it was. To play that instrument at the highest level requires such intense commitment. But Russian students today, unless they have rich parents, have to find jobs to support their studies. It is having a noticeable effect.”

Lugansky, who lives in Moscow with his wife and daughters, was simply born at the right time. Which is why a Russian pianist honed in the old ways, and at the top of his game, has the freedom nowadays to charm us whenever the opportunity arises.

•  Nikolai Lugansky performs Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3 with the RSNO at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh tomorrow and at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 16 March, www.rsno.org.uk