Rachmaninov’s First Piano Sonata lasts for 35 minutes and is so difficult that it’s rarely performed or recorded. But Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky has taken up the challenge and just released a recording of the epic work alongside the Second Piano Sonata. We spoke to him about a work he believes is among the composer's most beautiful.
Why did you decide to record these works? I played the Sonata No. 1 for the first time four years ago and the Sonata No. 2 I’ve played since I was very young – although always in the short version – I discovered the longer first version, written in 1913 quite late. The more I heard it the more I liked it. There’s no special story behind it – if there’s music I love and I feel ready to record, I do it.
The First Sonata was originally intended to be based on the story of Goethe’s Faust. Did you think about that when you were preparing for the recording? Not for the preparation, no. Goethe’s Faust was an influence on so many composers – Berlioz, Schumann, Mahler, Liszt. Rachmaninov wrote the Sonata so that the first movement represented Faust, the second Marguertie, the third Mephistopheles, but the music is much deeper, much wider than this.
Rachmaninov himself said in his retelling Faust goes to hell – unlike in Goethe’s original work. Is that how you see it? This is somehow a Russian response to Faust. In Goethe’s story, Faust hears a choir singing as he’s thinking about suicide. For Goethe that’s not such an important moment, but for Rachmaninov this church music – an Orthodox melody – becomes the second theme of the first movement. It also comes at the end of the finale, very fortissimo, so it sounds like a verdict, a judgement. Certainly Faust is going to hell.
Why do you think the work isn’t often recorded or performed? Because it’s very difficult. It’s a very long work, it’s difficult to learn and play – and it’s also difficult for the public. It’s such an immense work people are sometimes not ready for this long story. Rachmaninov himself only played it one or two times in Russia. Maybe he was in doubt whether the public could accept such a long, philosophical work. There’s no recording of Rachmaninov playing it – but imagine!
Your recording of the Second Sonata bring together elements from the two very different versions of the sonata – the first, longer version of 1913 and the second, cut 1931 edition. Why did you decide to use sections from both? Most composers are in love with their music and believe that they’ve composed something unbelievable. But with Rachmaninov it was different – when he composed something he always doubted whether it was good. His first version of the Second Sonata was around 25 minutes long, but he thought it should be 19 minutes [Rachmaninov said of Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata that the work ‘lasts 19 minutes, and all has been said]. So he created a shorter version – which is fine if you don’t really like Rachmaninov very much. But I’m in love with everything he’s done. So I’ve used 75 per cent of the first version, but in many places I play music from the second version because when he reworked some sections he made them even better.
Nikolai Lugansky's recording of Rachmaninov Piano Sonatas Nos 1 & 2 is out now on the Naïve label and will be reviewed in the January issue of BBC Music Magazine. He will also be performing a programme of Janáček, Brahms, Stravinsky and Respighi with violinist Leonidas Kavakos at the Barbican on 30 November