Monday 6 September 2021

The last piano solos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov in a recital of power and subtlety by Nikita Lukinov at Pushkin House

Nikita Lukinov
Nikita Lukinov
Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A Pushkin House music salon featuring a talented young Russian pianist

Based in an early 18th-century house in Bloomsbury Square, Pushkin House is an organisation which promotes Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet culture, founded in 1954 by a group of scholars with Russian origins. Pushkin House runs regular music salons and on Sunday 5 September 2021 we went along to hear the young Russian pianist Nikita Lukinov performing Prokofiev's Six Pieces from Cinderella, Op. 102, Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42, movements from Tchaikovsky's Dix-huit morceaux, Op. 72 and music by Scriabin.

Nikita Lukinov studied initially in his native Russia, making his orchestral debut at the age of 11, and then studied with Tatiana Sarkissova at the Purcell School. He is currently studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland were he has been the recipient of a full scholarship.

Tchaikovsky's Dix-huit morceaux were written in 1893, around the time of writing the Symphony No. 6, and were the last piano solos that composer wrote. He told his brother,  Modest Tchaikovsky, "In the meantime, in order to earn some money, I will compose a few piano pieces and romances". Lukinov performed a selection of seven of the pieces.

Whilst there is a distinct whiff of the salon about the music, Tchaikovsky adds surprising layers of complexity along with some virtuoso moments. Lukinov began with Impromptu (No. 1) which proved surprisingly substantial and benefited from Lukinov's vibrant tone, ability to make lines sing and attention to the underlying rhythms. Throughout the selection we got a great sense of the pianist's great enjoyment of this music. Berceuse (No. 2) was gently melancholy and akin to a barcarolle with distinct hints of Faure about the music. Tendre reproches (No. 3) was almost Schumann-esque, delightfully impulsive with dazzling moments, whilst Meditation (No. 5) was sometimes tender, sometimes ardent yet with more complex textures than the title implied. The delightful Valse a cinq temps (No. 16) was full of rhythmic interest whilst Dialogue (No. 8) was slow and romantic (the ghost of Schumann reoccurring), Echo rustique (No. 13) was vivid indeed, with hints of a robust country dance. Lukinov's style, vibrant tone and phrasing certainly lifted these works well away from the salon, and made you wonder why they are not better known.

He followed the Tchaikovsky with three pieces by Scriabin, Deux poemes, Op. 32 and Waltz, Op. 38. These date from 1903, a period when Scriabin was thinking about writing an opera and the second of the two poems was originally an aria in the opera. Both poems were full of gorgeous, constantly shifting harmonies, yet both were also quite strong meat too with Lukinov certainly bringing out the dramatic power of the music. The waltz opened with constantly shifting textures that you certainly could not dance to, but then there would be moments of real rhythmic impetus, and towards the end real fistfuls of notes. Tremendous stuff.

After the interval it was the turn of Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Corelli, which he wrote in 1931, his last work for solo piano. The theme used is La Folia, which is not in fact by Corelli, and Rachminov created a work that has 20 variations, along with an intermezzo (between variations 13 and 14) and a coda. Lukinov began the theme with transparent simplicity before launching the dark, intense first variation. Rachmaninov allows the music to flow, so that dramatic, powerful moments with strong accents were followed by something delicate, though perhaps still with strong rhythms. Fast, virtuoso passages came and went, vividly characterised, sometimes dazzling and sometimes mysterious.  Throughout the performance Lukinov imbued the music with strong character and intense passion, but also charm, conveying vivid impressions of each variation and then allowing it to pass as a series of shifting yet dramatic moods. Towards the end we moved from delicate romance to a moment which seemed to evoke Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances (written in 1942, and arranged for piano duet by the composer), to passages of compelling bravura. This thrilling section led not to the end, but to music somewhat romantic leading to a quietly intense close.

To finish came Prokofiev's Six pieces from Cinderella. Prokofiev wrote the music for his ballet Cinderella in the early 1940s and it premiered in 1945. He produced the piano suite in 1944, doing his own arrangements of the music, and it is the most substantial of three sets of piano arrangements that he did of the ballet. The six pieces combine some of the best-known music with some of the darker, more intense moments and Prokofiev's piano writing has a complexity to it. 'Waltz: Cinderella and the Prince' gave us familiar music in an unfamiliar guise, with Lukinov bringing out the intensity of Prokofiev's spiky yet spare harmonies, and there was a vividness to his fingerwork too. 'Cinderella's Variation' was all perky dazzle, with a terrific ending, whilst 'Quarrel' brought back memories of Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann fighting and leaping round the stage as the Ugly Sisters in Ashton's ballet. 'Waltz: Cinderella goes to the ball' was more conventionally melodic, yet still with strong piano textures, whilst 'Pas de Chale' was spare but with the emphasis on character and rhythm, growing in intensity and passion. 'Amoroso' brought things to a tender close, with spicy harmonies and expressive clarity, and at the very end the music magically evaporates.

The piano at Pushkin House (a rather elderly Steinway) was a somewhat lively instrument, occasionally almost too much for the room and at one point Lukinov apologised that the instrument was missing a couple of extra notes and he would have to re-arrange the music. Pushkin House is currently fund-raising for a new piano, having raised £17,000 of a projected £25,000 and you can support the appeal on JustGiving.

Lukinov's recital this Summer at the Blüthner Piano Centre is being streamed by the Keyboard Charitable Trust for Professional Performers on 8 September 2021. Further information from the event web page.

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