On 10 June Nikita Lukinov gave a truly magnificent concert at the Bluthner Piano Centre for Keyboard Trust. Christopher Axworthy reviews his performance and offers us an insight into the history behind each piece, their inner harmony as intended by the composer and performed by Nikita. Enjoy the review and don’t miss the recording of this performance that will be streamed live on 14 July at the trust’s website.

Nikita Lukinov

Liszt Sonata B Minor

Liszt noted on the Sonata’s manuscript that it was completed on February 2, 1853, but he had composed an earlier version by 1849. The Sonata was dedicated to Schumann, in return for Schumann’s dedication of his Fantasie op 17 (published 1839) to Liszt as his contribution to the monument of Beethoven in Bonn that Liszt had undertaken to organise.

A copy of the work arrived at Schumann’s house in May 1854, after he had entered Endenich sanatorium. Schumann’s wife Clara did not perform the Sonata as she found it “merely a blind noise”. The Sonata was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1854 and first performed on January 27, 1857 in Berlin by Hans von Bulow – Liszt’s son in law. It was attacked by the noted critic Eduard Hanslick who said “anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help”. Brahms reputedly fell asleep when Liszt performed the work in 1853. However, the Sonata drew enthusiasm from Wagner also Liszt’s son in law, Cosima having left von Bulow for Wagner. He heard it in a private performance by Karl Klindworth on April 5, 1855. It took a long time for the Sonata to become commonplace in concert repertoire, because of its technical difficulty and its status as “new” music.

I heard Nikita a month ago in a memorable recital at that Mecca for great young talent that is St Mary’s Perivale. A Prokofiev that sang with such colour, shape and style. Not even that had prepared me for this extraordinary performance of the Liszt Sonata that he played in his New Artists recital for the Keyboard Trust. I never thought I would ever relive the emotions of hearing Guido Agosti intoning and playing such a masterpiece in his studio in Siena and in Rome. I have heard some memorable performances from above all Curzon with his scrupulous attention to detail, the sheer grandiose exhilaration of Gilels, the visionary Richter, the oracle that was Arrau and even Cherkassky whose London performance was praised by Peter Stadlen as the greatest performance since pre war Horowitz.

But here today we were with a young man of extreme modesty who had asked me if I thought Leslie Howard might discuss some elements of the sonata with him so he could delve even deeper into a score that Leslie knows better than anyone alive ….or dead! I was overwhelmed by a performance where usually I am looking at my watch as one rhetorical phrase follows another without any regard to the very precise dynamic markings. Usually even more disturbed by a pulse that is continually interrupted to allow showmanship or heart on sleeve emotions. Liszt only writes fff two or three times in the whole sonata at crucial points of arrival as indeed ppp is only rarely used at moments of extreme delicacy or closure. Just in the last few pages we have indications of Presto, Prestissimo, Andante sostenuto, Allegro moderato and Lento assai but there should be a forward pulse that cannot allow for sentimentality. All this was scrupulously noted by Nikita but also with a sense of colour and delicacy that allowed him in some passages to split the left hand from the right for a split second that is the secret of great pianists in their search for the perfect legato on an instrument that only has hammers and strings! I have never been so enthralled as with the final three chords that seemed to disappear into infinity with a sensitivity to sound that was quite extraordinary. The final deep bass note almost inaudible as it had been at the opening. ’p’, sotto voce Liszt asks at the opening as Nikita allowed the ominous whispered bass notes to cast their spell. The Allegro energico just growing out of this in such a natural unforced way as these three motives were expounded before they are transformed and elaborated in a way that was to influence Wagner soon after in their search for form, helped by transformation.

There was a clarity to Nikita’s playing that was just as I remember from Agosti or Curzon, where every detail could be heard so clearly adding to the emotional drive that is in this work from the first to the last note. There were so many memorable things that I could describe from the first Grandioso dissolving so naturally into the dolce con grazia. The forward movement of the cantando espressivo and the absolute clarity of what it led to. The excitement of the fortissimo that follows but with syncopated chords that for once we’re so clear and just added to the excitement without any pianistic distortions. A slight misreading of the marcato after the recitativo had me wondering if it was indeed a misreading or a deliberate choice to miss out the odd two quavers. The three chords before the Andante sostenuto were as miraculous as the final three chords I have already spoken about. The Quasi Adagio, that in Richter’s hands lasted a miraculous eternity, were here played with such aristocratic sentiment but with an underlying forward movement that was the absolute hallmark that I remember of Agosti’s playing. The great throbbing chords in which passions are aroused was a miracle of control and brought us so emotionally to a climax which Liszt does, in fact, mark fff.

The allegro energico fugato was played with such refined dynamics that made the build up ever more exciting as more crescendo is asked for as we arrive at the recapitulation of the sonata form that Liszt still uses as a base. It was here that Gilels was unforgettable in his grandiose explosion of sound. Nikita may not have the personality yet of the great virtuosi but he does have something extra special which is the ability to look at the score with an intelligence and freshness away from tradition. With a fearless technical mastery that seems to know no difficulties one is reminded of Serkin’s comment on meeting the young Murray Perahia. ’You told me he was good. But you did not tell me HOW good!

Scriabin, Valse op.38

Aleksandr Scriabin wrote his Valse for solo piano Op. 38 in 1903, which was a particularly fruitful year in his production and it was published a year later. It is easy to see why Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin” as he wrote almost exclusively for the piano and began his career by composing mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, preludes and études. In this Valse we catch the composer near the end of his early Chopin period, before he started writing chords in 4ths rather than 3rds. It is a memory of a distant past and a magic box of sounds opening slowly, the intensifying, blinding light emitting from inside sets the universe ablaze just to vanish again at the end, leaving but a delicate taste. There is a feminine coyness and delicacy in many passages, with achingly nostalgic chromatic harmonies alternating with a more red-blooded and masculine ‘grand style’ of piano-playing that exploits the full range of the keyboard.

This is a waltz that has a freedom of perfumed ecstasy with explosive outbursts of passion. A psychedelic waltz that is just a taste of what is yet to come from Scriabin ‘s multicoloured palette. Such sumptuous sounds in Nikita’s hands but what passion both restrained and fearless with a wonderful sense of improvised freedom. A jeux perlé of a different era, that of the greatest pianists who could astonish not with speed and volume but with their ravishing colours and seeming natural pianistic ease. Cherkassky or Moiseiwitch come to mind.

Prokofiev: 6 pieces from Cinderella Op 102

Prokofiev of such beauty never since Rubinstein’s magical Visions Fugitives have I ever put those two words together until listening to this young man’s Cinderella suite today. This collection of six transcriptions was the last of the three sets for piano that Prokofiev extracted from Cinderella, the other two being ten pieces (Op. 97) and three pieces (Op. 95). He wrote the ballet from 1940-44, during which time he also worked on these transcriptions, as well as other music, including parts of his opera War and Peace, the whole of his orchestral suite, The Year 1941, and the String Quartet No. 2. Along with his Ten Pieces from Romeo & Juliet, Op. 75, this collection represents the composer’s best piano transcriptions. Prokofiev arranged them in 1944 and published them the same year. This is only the second time I have heard this suite complete although I think Richter played some of them as encores in the many memorable recitals he used to give in London in the 60’s and 70’s. I heard the complete set in Italy with a Russian protégée of Eliso Virsaladze. A fine performance but one that I could take or leave. So I was not over enthusiastic about hearing it again today. But as Joan Chissell famously said in a review of a concert by Rubinstein, the Prince of pianists: ‘Mr Rubinstein turned baubles into gems’. I have no wish to infer that Prokofiev’s Cinderella are baubles but I do mean in the wider sense that the music today was made to talk and tell a story. In Nikita’s hands it was a wondrous story indeed full of colour, imagination and a sense of line. Someone who has the ‘gift of the gab’ and that can keep you enthralled with the story he has to tell. Tomorrow I will add the score to my library but for now just recommend that you listen to this exemplary performance of a Prokofiev that can be made to SING!

In the meantime I just copy these notes that may be of interest: This collection of six pieces from Cinderella is without doubt the most substantial of the three sets. It contains not only some of the ballet’s most memorable themes but also its darker and more profound music. Many have viewed the work as a light piece, almost on the direct and generally simple level of Peter and the Wolf. Its music, however, goes far deeper in its often-thorny expressive language and complex conflicts than any of his children’s works. For example, the third piece, The Quarrel, taken from Nos. 2, Pas-du-châle) and 4, The Father, in the ballet, contrasts playful mischief at the outset with a dissonant buildup in the middle section that could well depict a bloody sword fight, rather than the nagging Cinderella’s father suffers from his second wife and her daughters. The opening piece in the set, Waltz (Cinderella and the Prince), portraying the Grand Waltz (No. 30 in the ballet), is sinister and suggests strife and anything but romance between Cinderella and the Prince. The second piece, Cinderella’s Variation, is one of the lighter items, yet even it portends anxiety in its closing moments.

Taken from Cinderella’s Dance (No. 32), it is a fairly literal transcription of the music, as is generally the case here. Prokofiev rarely enlarged upon or substantially altered music he transcribed, though he often shifted sections around and rearranged their order. The fourth piece is the famous Waltz, No. 37 in the ballet, that occurs just before Midnight. It is sinister and ominous, quite effective on the piano too, but Prokofiev had to tack on an ending to it since this section in the ballet leads right into Midnight.

The next piece, Pas-du-châle, is taken from music in the first act dance of the same name (No. 2) and from Duet of the Sisters with the Oranges. The mood is humorous at the outset, then turns mocking. It fits well on the piano, the color and sarcasm conveyed splendidly, with the music not landing softly on its dissonances. The final piece here is Amoroso, comprised of Cinderella’s theme, which occurs in No. 1, Introduction (and elsewhere in the ballet), a portion from No. 3 Cinderella, and from the closing number, Amoroso.

This is probably the best of the six pieces, not only because it combines music from throughout the ballet, but because it captures Cinderella’s sadness and adversity at the outset, her inner beauty and love for the Prince in the latter half and her happily-ever-after triumph at the close. It is a musical depiction of her character’s growth. Prokofiev here does make a few minor changes in accommodating the music from the ballet’s Amoroso close, but the differences sound greater than they actually are, partly because of the piano’s non-sustaining sonority.