Nikolai Lugansky skillfully played a program of Liszt and Chopin at UW's Meany Hall on Tuesday night.

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An evening shared between Chopin and Liszt is sure to test anyone’s pianism. On Tuesday in Meany Hall, Nikolai Lugansky showed himself able to realize even the most taxing works on his well-planned program with commanding artistry.

Half of this UW President’s Piano Series evening was devoted to Liszt, in celebration of the composer’s bicentennial year. In addition to two “Studies in Transcendental Execution,” the young Russian pianist offered three large-scale pieces from the “Years of Pilgrimage,” thus emphasizing not just the technical brilliance of Liszt’s writing but also the musical substance that usually underpins it. His performances were exemplary in tonal clarity, textural richness, and what George Bernard Shaw used to call “marksmanship.”

Beginning with “Vallée d’Obermann,” from the Swiss year, Lugansky was at pains to extract all of the intensity from the music’s obsessively chromatic line and harmony — this was a d’Obermann with plenty of bite. “Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” and “Sposalizio” (their order reversed from that printed in the program) ranged easily between filigree fleetness and full-toned rhetoric, though there was a somewhat troubling tendency in the “Jeux d’eaux” to let top notes of phrases emerge too strongly even when they were not the most important ones in their respective groups.

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At anything above the softest dynamic level, Lugansky’s tone was noticeably more incisive, less warmly rounded, than in his recently released CD of some of the same works. But this was certainly no handicap in the 10th and 12th of the Transcendental Studies, which were dispatched with an often breathtaking brilliance and rhythmic zest. Similar virtues were on show before intermission, in an equally substantial group of Chopin works including the great Barcarolle, the Fourth Scherzo and the Fourth Ballade. Yet the C-sharp-minor Prelude from Opus 25 hinted that perhaps introspection is more Lugansky’s natural strong suit than all those dazzling fireworks, and indeed, for me, the most memorable playing of the evening came in his eloquently hushed performance of the exquisite D-flat-major Nocturne, Op. 27 No. 2.

Comparisons with Sviatoslav Richter, already beginning to be made by some Lugansky fans, are perhaps a shade premature. He does not yet possess the late master’s ability to create vividly differentiated tone-colors in every strand of a texture. But that will probably come, and already this is a pianist and musician of integrity and awesome talent.

Bernard Jacobson:

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