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Nikolai LuganskyPhoto: Marco Borggreve

Nikolai Lugansky is virtuosic, youthful and humorous, but when it comes to music he becomes dead serious. At the end of February he will be playing Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto in G minor with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. And it all began with a red toy piano. Interview by Kultúrpart.

You are soon going to perform at Müpa with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Are you looking forward to the trip?

I can hardly wait. I have very fond memories of the Hungarian capital, which I have already visited several times and have always enjoyed myself thoroughly. 2014 was the last time I played in Budapest, as well as in a few other cities in Hungary. The conductor was Gábor Takács-Nagy, and I have happy memories of those concerts.

Of the world’s great pianists, you are regarded as the one with the most youthful mind, while being a very serious virtuoso. What do you think, is this true?

It is very difficult for anyone to see themselves from the outside, yet like most Russians I certainly love humour, I love a good joke or anecdote, it’s just that, for me music is no joke. When I’m sitting at the piano I take every second very seriously. It is then that my passion for music shoves everything else aside.

I read that when Tatiana Nikolayeva, your first and most important teacher, was looking for talented youngsters to develop, she knew immediately that you were one of those proverbial great talents worth investing in even though you were just a child.

From as early as the beginning of the 50s, Tatiana Nikolayeva gave an enormous number of international concerts. Besides the likes of Sviatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh and Rostropovich she was allowed to perform abroad in those years, the youngest and the only female artist to do so. The most important thing for her was being a performing artist, teaching only came afterwards but she also took teaching very seriously. We developed a special friendship despite our the near-fifty-year age difference. The best thing she taught me was how to perform on stage. We played together many times on two pianos, those concerts were always a great experience, and to this day I cannot forget our intimate meetings when she would invite some of her students over to her flat to show us the records and superb videos of this or that great performer which she had bought abroad. She was very interested in modern music, in the latest musical experiments, and she wanted to hear about it from her young students. It was of the utmost importance to her that we discussed every new impression.

Your parents were scientists. Which fields did they work in?

My father is a physicist, and if I’m correct his subject is magnetic resonance. He is still working. My mother was a biochemist and used to research the chlorophyll molecule.

How much was your scientific family involved with music?

Very much so. Both of my parents loved listening to music, the house was always full of it. My father could play the guitar a little, as could virtually every Russian boy in the 1960s, and he mostly played pop. Of course we had classical records too, but my parents never thought that one of their children would become a professional musician.

So how did you become a world famous pianist?

That’s a funny story. My father once brought home a small toy piano; I can even remember it was red. When he wanted to show me how it worked, and began to play it, I, at the age of five-and-a-half said that he was playing completely out of tune, and showed him which keys to press to make the melody sound right.

How could you know at that age how to play the piano?

I think the piano is the only instrument I could have done this on; it’s so easy to strike the keys and to hear which is the correct sound that I find it natural even today. My father was astonished, through, and with my mother’s agreement he soon decided to enrol me into a music school. So that is how it began.

At the end of February you are performing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto in G minor in Budapest. What’s your connection with the composer and with romantic Russian music?

A composer’s cultural background is obviously very important, but interestingly enough, as opposed to say Brahms, Chopin or Schumann, Prokofiev’s origins are less significant. His single characteristic was just that he was a great genius. And from this perspective it doesn’t matter if the composer was Hungarian, Russian or French, he wrote perfect and more-than-perfect pieces. I would be hard pressed to say that there have been twenty such geniuses in the entire history of music. But don’t get me wrong, the cultural background of a piece of music is very important to me, and from this perspective I feel that Russian music is very close to me, of course. Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and many other Russians have a special place in my heart. But I think, among them, Prokofiev was the greatest. His Second Piano Concerto in G minor is one of his best-known and most beautiful pieces, and many people love to perform it all over the world. It is not by chance that this concerto sounds so disarming. It is not your usual happy and optimistic Prokofiev, on the contrary, it is a very dramatic piece since he wrote it after a friend of his had committed suicide. But altogether it is wonderful!