The title of ECM's release of works by three composers born in the former Soviet Union perfectly captures the mood of the CD – it is truly mysterious. Although more than half a century separates the first of these pieces from the most recent, they share a sense of otherness that defies easy explanation. The pieces are not so much mysterious in the sense of being eerie (although there are several moments that might raise the hairs on the back of your neck if you were listening alone in the dark); they are unsettling because they raise more questions than they answer.
Comprising three centuries of noted composers' "minor" works, Lubimov's Der Bote (The Messenger) bears out its title with short, introspective pieces that capture thoughts of nostalgia, mourning, and meditation. The first work, C.P.E. Bach's 1787 Fantasy, sounds amazingly avant-garde, full of surprising darts and turns. And the experimental 20th-century composer John Cage's "In a Landscape" is an even bigger surprise. Instead of random keyboard plink-plunks, it's a diaphanous Debussyan tone poem, bound to startle party guests playing Name That Composer… –Dan Davis
For this Alpha-Classics album of modernist music arranged for two pianos, Alexei Lubimov and Slava Poprugin play four essential works that yield some surprises in their keyboard versions. Three of the pieces are transcriptions of instrumental music, specifically Igor Stravinsky's arrangement of his Concerto in E flat major, "Dumbarton Oaks," John Cage's reduction of Erik Satie's Socrate, and Darius Milhaud's four-hand transcription of Satie's Cinéma (composed as a soundtrack for the short Dadaist film Entr'acte, used in the ballet Relâche), with Stravinsky's Concerto for two pianos solo performed as it was originally written.
"This compact disc presents all the studio recordings that remain from a time when, as a twenty-five year old champion of the avant-garde, I had to seek for every possible occasion of playing the new works of our composers. In those days, they were hounded and ripped apart by ideological critics; now they are recognized as the masters of new music. Audiences today need to realize with how much excitement and trust people discovered and took over the new currents seeping in from Europe through the Iron Curtain. These works represent and symbolize a marvelous epoch of friendship, a time when we came to know new horizons and discovered ourselves in the Soviet Union's huge, heterogeneous spaces." (Alexei Lubimov. May 2003)
Debussy is closer to the expressionism of Schoenberg than to the chiselled sonorities of a Chopin or the extravagant virtuosity of a Liszt, even if his refined art can still be seen in the line of tradition of 19th-century music. This is frequently forgotten in the interpretation as well as the assessment of his oeuvre. Debussy himself decried the concept of musical impressionism because he feared, rightly, that superficial refinement would degenerate into musical mist, concealing the subtleties of a new musical idiom and its structural logic. Thus, for example, instead of heading his 24 “Préludes” in two books with programmatic titles in his autograph score, he appended them at the bottom of the individual pieces.
There are projects on which the artistic director of a record label straightaway asks himself a few questions. For example, when it comes to recording Beethoven’s three ‘greatest hit’ sonatas, recorded a multitude of times by the leading pianists. However, a forte-pianist of the calibre of Alexei Lubimov already constitutes one good reason to implement the project, as does the choice of the facsimile of an Erard piano (1802, copy made by Christopher Clarke) of which the original was within Beethoven’s reach.
This CD's title, Messe Noire, and its dark cover art may mislead some into thinking this album is filled with evil, forbidden things; but the only selection that suggests the diabolical is Alexander Scriabin's macabre Sonata No. 9, "Black Mass," and it comes at the very end, after Igor Stravinsky's light, neo-Classical Serenade in A, Dmitry Shostakovich's sardonic Sonata No. 2, and Sergey Prokofiev's witty but brutal knuckle-buster, the Sonata No. 7, which all have their dark moments, certainly, but not the same sinister mood found in Scriabin. If pianist Aleksei Lubimov's aim in bringing these Russian masterworks together points to some other unifying idea – perhaps the significance of the piano in these composers' thinking – then some other title might have been more helpful. As it is, though, this album seems most unified in Lubimov's vigorous style of playing, brittle execution, and emphasis on the piano's percussive sonorities, evident in each performance. This spiky approach works best in Prokofiev's sonata, and fairly well in Shostakovich's and Stravinsky's pieces; but it seems too sterile in Scriabin's music, which needs more languor and sensuous writhing than clarity or crispness.