Silvestrov/Pärt/Ustvolskaya: Misterioso (ECM New Series 1959)

Misterioso

Alexei Lubimov piano
Alexander Trostiansky violin
Kirill Rybakov clarinet
Recorded May 2005, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Alexei Lubimov has been painting himself quite the somber niche in ECM’s New Series catalogue, and perhaps nowhere more so than with Misterioso. This suitably titled disc brings the Russian pianist together with two younger colleagues—clarinetist Kyrill Rybakov and violinist Alexander Trostiansky—for a program of splendid contrasts.

We begin at the end, as it were, with Valentin Silvestrov’s Post scriptum (1990) for violin and piano. Like much of the composer’s later work, it manages to sound like a quotation without, in fact, being derivative—a reference to the abyss in which the creative spirit dances. In this vastly self-referential universe, the balance between drama and gentility breathes in shadowy cascades and pizzicato afterglows. The piano acts as core, while the violin etches upon it signs of its own becoming. Between alternating contacts and separations, the piece eschews sequential development in favor of hopping reflections. Where the Andantino shows a profoundly respectful sense of melody, constructing with minimal elements a fully fleshed organism of song without words, the third and final movement picks up on the plucked themes of the first, sounding almost synthetic in its precision before total dissipation.

Silvestrov’s 1996 title composition is the most cerebral piece on the record. Scored for “solo clarinet (with piano),” the piece is dedicated to Evgeny Orkin, a musician adept at both instruments, thereby necessitating the same demands on the contemporary solo performer. What may seem on the surface an elusive piece quickly turns, however, into something geometric, even gritty. Through its protracted twenty minutes we find ourselves at an impasse of time and space. The structure is sporadic, yet bound, every sub-section joined by the barest of chains. It is the temerity of creative life and of the existence that engenders it. Delicate flutters from the clarinet speak of an era beyond the now. Breath is expelled without notes, expressing more solitude than wind. It is the base level of the utterance, a song reduced to its core constituent.

One might think there would be no need for another version of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (1978), but in this for clarinet and piano we find ourselves regaled anew by its simple, mirrored beauties. The faster treatment here gives it something of a romantic quality and allows it to congeal against the constant threat of silence that embraces it from all directions.

Considering the mastery encoded into every moment of Galina Ustvolskaya’s 1949 Trio for clarinet, violin and piano, it’s no wonder the piece remains one of the greatest for its combination. The dynamism of its contours bespeaks a surface tension so resilient that its fulfillment (enhanced by the unification of the album’s three musicians at last) rings genuine and unforced. A jovial sense of play is at work here, skirting an edge between exuberance and emotional turmoil. At moments the syncopation recalls Shostakovich (unsurprising, considering that Ustvolskaya was his student), making for an intense danse macabre. The central Dolce wanders like a creeping shadow into all-consuming thought, and seems to echo the beauties with which the program began, while the final movement, marked Energico, throws us into a murky spiral, crashing in a punctuation of deflated purpose.

We end with another Ustvolskaya piece, the 1952 Sonata for violin and piano. Over the course of its nearly 20-minute single movement, we listen as a staggering entity, drunk with regret, turns in on itself, stretching thin like taffy until barely connected to the breath that animates the album as a whole.

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