Vadim Repin and Nikolai Lugansky at Royce Hall

Violinist Vadim Repin and pianist Nikolaï Lugansky turned up at Royce Hall on Saturday night -- and each had some record-company hype to live up to.

In 2006, Warner Classics issued a 10-CD anthology of its Repin recordings -- a tribute once reserved only for the greats but which now seems to be the standard treatment at Warner. Known for its astoundingly cheap box sets, Brilliant Classics recently came out with a weird five-CD package called "Great Pianists of the Century," featuring the usual legends (Horowitz, Schnabel, Rachmaninoff etc.), a few living lions (Alfred Brendel, Martha Argerich, Earl Wild) and a sole youngster in that lofty company -- Lugansky.

Well, you can suspend the disbelief for awhile. On this occasion, armed with a serious program of sonatas, Repin, 37, and Lugansky, 36, sounded like one of the great Russian duos of our time.

Maybe of any time. They were on fire.

Meeting of equals

Repin in particular seemed liberated and energized in this meeting of equals, having a willful virtuoso on the keyboard to prod and challenge him every step of the way. He was animated and emotionally driven, given to abrupt changes in dynamics, his tone polished, shining and dead-on in tune.

After opening with a performance of Debussy's Sonata for Violin and Piano full of heightened contrasts and big, lunging phrases, the high-powered Repin-Lugansky team found a more grateful vehicle for that approach in the Prokofiev Sonata No. 1 in F minor. In the opening movement, Lugansky's deep bass notes tolled like an ominous set of church bells, and Repin's trills and feathery scales caught the bleakness of the line. The second and fourth movements bristled with Prokofievian percussive drive and brittleness, each player feeding on the other's energy.

Beethoven's lengthy "Kreutzer" Sonata -- even with all repeats observed -- flew by in hardly any time with unimpeded vehemence, high drama, explosive accents and the often-overlooked element of surprise. Like experienced race-car drivers, Repin and Lugansky were completely unfazed by the fast tempos, and you could relax in their absolute self-assurance as they tested the limits of how far they could push.

The encore, Tchaikovsky's Waltz-Scherzo Opus 34, played molto rubato, gave Repin a chance to display some lighter violinistic fireworks as Lugansky weighed in with force. As you would want from a pair of gifted Russians, there was plenty of authentic soul in this dance.

Ginell is a freelance writer.

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