Piano prodigy playing fiendish Rachmaninov: When Nikolai Lugansky was five he sat down at a neighbour’s piano in 1977 and played a Beethoven piano sonata by ear, having just heard it...

Nikolai Lugansky seeks to hypnotise with his playing in Rach Three
Nikolai Lugansky seeks to hypnotise with his playing in Rach Three

Astonishingly, he hadn’t even started learning to play a piano and was swiftly enrolled in the Moscow Central Music School to do so.

Going on to win prizes in competitions all over the place, including the 1994 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, he has since collaborated with a who’s who of leading conductors.

Next Friday (January 14) he is in Sheffield to play Rachmaninov’s fiendish Third Piano Concerto at the City Hall when the International Concert Season resumes after the Christmas break.

Rach Three, as the concerto is colloquially known, was infrequently heard at one time with pianists shying clear of it but has become almost ubiquitous since featuring prominently in the 1996 film Shine.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and their music director since 2008, Andris Nelsons, who is a very hot property, partner Lugansky in the concerto.

Six years younger than Lugansky, it will be interesting to see how long the CBSO can hold on to Nelsons, his initial three-year contract having been extended to 2014 just after a year into the job.

Since taking it up he has made debuts at the Vienna State Opera, New York Metropolitan in 2009 and the Bayreuth Festival in 2010 when he opened it conducting a new production of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

To say his rise to the top has been meteoric is an understatement.

Prior to Birmingham, he was principal conductor of the Latvian National Opera for four seasons, 2003-07, after a spell in its orchestra as a trumpet player, and chief conductor of the North West German Philharmonic for three, 2006-09.

Nelsons was born in Riga where his mother founded the first early music ensemble in Latvia and, like Lugansky, had a life-changing experience at the age of five when his parents, both extremely musical, took him to see Wagner’s Tannhäuser – not exactly a perfect introduction to opera for a five-year-old!

But, he later said, it was “one of the strongest experiences of my life.”

He took up the trumpet at the age of 12 and later sang as a bass-baritone in his mother’s early music ensemble. He also began studying conducting in St Petersburg before becoming acquainted with his distinguished countryman Mariss Jansons.

The Latvian-born maestro became his mentor and the rest, as they say, is history – very brief history!

Nelsons leans towards big German and Slav works and next Friday’s concert is completed with a performance of Richard Strauss’ epic tone poem Ein Heldenleben – A Hero’s Life.