Originally published Sunday, November 13, 2011 at 5:30 AM

The strong and the subtle: Lugansky at UW

The Russian pianist will play Chopin and Liszt in a program Nov. 15, part of the UW World Series.

Special to The Seattle Times


Nikolai Lugansky

8 p.m. Tuesday, Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $20-$37, up to 2 youth tickets free with each adult ticket if you use the code "prelude" by phone or in person at Meany Hall (206-543-4880 or


Acclaimed for a level of virtuosity that borders on athleticism, yet consistently praised for his penetrating lucidity as an interpreter of Romantic repertoire, the Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky performs Tuesday in Seattle as part of the UW World Series/President's Piano Series.

The timing is auspicious: The second half of the program at Meany Hall is dedicated to the innovative Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, and Lugansky's most recent recording, "Liszt," will be released in the U.S. the same day as his performance.

The first half is given over to the music of Polish genius Frédéric Chopin, whom Lugansky, 39, celebrated on his 2010 CD release, "Chopin: Piano Music." Essentially, the bill is a tribute to two bicentennials: Chopin's, whose 200th birthday was marked last year, and Liszt's, this year.

Lugansky, a former child prodigy who won the International Tchaikovsky Composition in 1994, has spent much of this year in recitals that include short selections by Chopin and Liszt. Critics have generally agreed the two composers, towering figures of the Romantic era, bring out Lugansky's essential strengths: technical brilliance matched by an almost matter-of-fact clarity and sensitivity.

"The steel ... always lay below the velvet," a writer for London's Financial Times said of a Lugansky recital in January, adding that the musician "went for broke" on three of Liszt's physically challenging "Études d'execution transcendante" ("Transcendental Studies").

Lugansky will perform two of the latter in Seattle. Speaking by phone from Moscow, he says "many people hear these for the first time and can't believe they can be played by two hands."

"They are the two most important composers of piano music," Lugansky says of Chopin and Liszt. "We cannot imagine piano without them. What is interesting is that, as men, they are completely different in character. Chopin was an introvert, very sensitive and never theatrical. His music always seems to speak to one person. Liszt was an extrovert and the great revolutionary of the piano.

"Everything Liszt did, he addressed to the whole of humanity. He had a very big heart and very broad soul."

Lugansky says the Chopin section of the Meany show includes the composer's "three greatest pieces for piano."

The Bacarolle in F-sharp Major "is a full portrait of Chopin harmonically," while the Scherzo in E Major "reminds us of Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' " Of Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Lugansky describes it as "one of most important Romantic pieces about the conflict between dreams and reality."

Lugansky will also play Liszt's three-suite "Années de pèlerinage" ("Years of Pilgrimage"), among his masterworks and a Romantic touchstone the pianist says reveals "the wide range of Liszt's music."

About the suites, he says "Valée d'Obermann" in E Minor "became a symbol of Romanticism. Liszt didn't have a tragic view of life. For him, death is connected to a better world. One of the most impressionistic pieces is 'Les jeux d'eaux á la Villa d'Este,' with so many colors and possibilities for piano it was absolutely unbelievable to his contemporaries.

" 'Sposalizio' is one of his most beautiful and intimate pieces. It brings everybody hope."

Tom Keogh: