Alexei Lubimov: Tangere (ECM New Series 2112)

2112 X

Alexei Lubimov

Alexei Lubimov tangent piano
Recorded July 2008, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekapel Elzenveld, Antwerpen
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Recording supervision: Guido Gorna
An ECM Production
Release date: August 25, 2017

For this landmark record of music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), pianist Alexei Lubimov has assembled a rich conspectus. More than that, he has delved into the history of the classical keyboard and its precursors, coming up for glorious air with the rarely heard tangent piano as his tool of choice. As one of a handful of options available at the younger Bach’s fingertips, it comes alive in this unusual combination of scores and performances. The title of the program, Tangere, means “to touch,” and embodies Lubimov’s ideal as interpreter, if not also Bach’s as composer.

As noted by New York Times critic Cleveland Johnson, the tangent piano recalls the Middle Eastern santur, and indeed operates by a kindred principle of hammer and string. Like András Schiff’s ECM New Series recording of Franz Schubert on a Viennese fortepiano, its rewards far outweigh the time it may take to accustom oneself to its timbre.

Between 1779 and 1787, C.P.E. Bach produced six collections of fantasies, sonatas, and rondos “für Kenner und Liebhaber” (for connoisseurs and dilettantes), and it is from all but the second and fourth of these that Lubimov has plucked the juiciest fruits. The Freye Fantasie (Wq 67) that opens the program is also its longest, taking listeners through 11 minutes of time travel. In addition to its mature composing and foreshadowing of the even greater piano literature waiting in the coming century, it showcases the instrument’s gamut of colors, moods, and textures. The same characterization holds true for the Sonate II (Wq 57) that follows, sandwiching between its charming outer layers an inner oasis.

Selections from the Clavierstücke verschiedener Art (Keyboard pieces of various kinds) of 1765 and Musikalisches Vielerley (Musical miscellaney) of 1770 flesh out the middle ground with shorter bursts of creative exposition. Among these pieces are the delightful solfeggi, which pack the punch of extra-strength medicine capsules.

In this context, the Sonate VI (Wq55) comes across as downright cinematic for its use of space, movement, and framing. Its central Andante is so hauntingly suited to the tangent piano that it feels born from within its strings. All of which renders the concluding Fantasie II (Wq 59/6) a vessel for any virtuosity that preceded it.

John Cage: As it is (ECM New Series 2268)

-> Cover*

John Cage
As it is

Alexei Lubimov piano, prepared piano
Natalia Pschenitschnikova voice
Recorded December 2011, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“turning from the tremendous lie of sleep
i watch the roses of the day grow deep.”
–e. e. cummings

The music of John Cage has an intimate, if sporadic, history on ECM, where its deepest proponents have been pianists Herbert Henck and Alexei Lubimov. The latter joins soprano Natalia Pschenitschnikova for this collection of early works. Both performers were fearless advocates of Cage in their native Russia at a time when Western music registered peripherally, if at all, on the Soviet radar. Since meeting Cage during the 1988 International Contemporary Music Festival in Leningrad, they have championed his music with a vitality that translates pristinely in the present recording. Here is the portrait of a jovial man who took pleasure in the edible, the empty, in the unpretentious.


The solo piano Dream opens the program with a meditation in the vein of Cage’s In a landscape, only with a more circumscribed palette. It is a painting in miniature, a raking of stones, an attunement to the way things are. It is at once an organic and calculated introduction into a universe dictated not only by chance but also by the hands of musicians, producers, and engineers. One can locate this triangulation elsewhere in Lubimov’s pianism, which infuses the occasional prepared piano piece with bells, pulses, and, somehow, solitude. Both The Unavailable Memory of and Music for Marcel Duchamp are quintessential examples of what the instrument can do, and Lubimov does a fine job showing that it is not a piano augmented but its own entity. Multifarious and adaptive, the music it produces is a dance without bodies.


While the solo repertoire included on this disc moves with the quality of cinematic tracking shots, accepting whatever comes into frame, the introduction of voice slashes the screen so slowly that by the time backlight seeps through, it’s already too late to repair. Cage would surely have welcomed the glow. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake provides the texts for The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, which Pschenitschnikova navigates as though on the verge of tears. As Lubimov hits the piano in microscopic footsteps, words cease to matter and extend tendrils far beyond their semantic shelters. Unlike Cathy Berberian, who gave the piece her lusciously operatic flair, Pschenitschnikova strips her voice bare and finds fresh physicality in its nakedness. Even when singing wordlessly, as in A Flower or She is Asleep, her powers of illustration are no less potent. And when she does elicit meaning from lips and tongue, it is already fragmented. The poetry of e. e. cummings lends itself permeably to Cage’s aesthetic proclivities, and the performers adapt themselves in kind. Pschenitschnikova sings at the back of the room in Experiences No. 2, for example, to beautifully unsettling effect. The programmatic Five Songs (also setting cummings) show the playfulness that was integral to Cage’s character. With such titles as “little four paws” and “Tumbling hair,” they make much of the little things in life that grasp the scarcest rungs of memory. (The final “wheeEEE” of “hist whist” conjures up cummings’s goat-footed balloon man.) Even the Rubik’s cube of Gertrude Stein (Three Songs) becomes transformed in Pschenitschnikova’s affected interpretation. As does Nowth upon nacht, which mines Joyce in a string of single notes and the slam of a piano lid. It’s a gem in the Cage catalogue, one all the more difficult to perform for its brevity and compactness of expression. It hasn’t sounded this vibrant since Joan La Barbara recorded it for New Albion in 1990.


Always comforting about Cage’s music is its attention to inhalation, the storehouse of emotion from which issues his cellular melodies. We can hear this in the Two Pieces for Piano, which together form roots and stem. Like the Dream in variation, which ends the program by redrawing the circle until it becomes a sphere, they wait behind closed eyes for life to begin.

(To hear samples of As it is, click here.)

Alexei Lubimov: Messe Noire (ECM New Series 1679)


Alexei Lubimov
Messe Noire

Alexei Lubimov piano
Recorded May 1998 and December 2000 at Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Messe Noire was the second ECM recital debut for Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov, following his enigmatic debut, Der Bote. It remains one of his freshest and most luminous programs, forging from the composers of his homeland what Reinhard Schulz describes in his liner notes as “a cosmos in which free spirits gather together.” The image is apt, for in the “Hymn” of Igor Stravinsky’s Serenade in A (1925), which opens the disc, we do indeed encounter a galactic ocean of impressions. From the gentle reverie of lost love to the grumbling belly of despair, it encapsulates Stravinsky’s penchant for emotional directness, as in the processual Romanza that follows and all the way through to the frayed Finale. The Sonata No. 2 op. 61 (1943) of Dmitri Shostakovich rather chooses ebullience as its quill, and marks with it a playful inter-relationship between the left and right hands in a volleying of motifs. An off-kilter Largo leads us to a plaintive Moderato, which provides one of the more sustained, gloomier contractions on the album.

Sergey Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 op. 83 (1942) introduces characteristic buoyancy before quickly fading into a quieter spell, inhabiting the after-effect with the oral passion of a missionary. This ebb and flow of pensive dips is the sonata’s overall modus operandi, epitomized most movingly in the Andante. This dynamism is only strengthened by Lubimov’s mature sense of syncopation. The boisterous reverie that is the final Precipitato brings that same play of weight and lightness to bear on more wistful statements. After this rousing feast, we are treated to desert in the form of Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9 op. 68 (1913). Marking time with seemingly reserved energy, its gorgeous contours actually build toward an arresting resolution.

What connects these four towering works is precisely what separates them. Over a spread of personal and social politics three decades in the making, they remain unscathed (if somewhat neglected), breathing with vibrant life at Lubimov’s fingertips.

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


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.

Valentin Silvestrov: Bagatellen und Serenaden (ECM New Series 1988)


Valentin Silvestrov
Bagatellen und Serenaden

Valentin Silvestrov piano
Alexei Lubimov piano
Münchener Kammerorchester
Christoph Poppen conductor
Recorded February 2006, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

All too often, contemporary classical music is framed as a forward-looking genre, falling under the rubric of “new music,” as if it somehow grew of its own accord in lieu of outdated motives. But then we encounter a figure like Valentin Silvestrov, whose music always seems to look into a watery mirror and tells us that the more this art form progresses, the more it mines the depths of that which has passed. Such is the realization that brings purity his Bagatellen (2005), a set of simple piano pieces that practically weep at the composer’s fingers. Airy at first glance yet overwhelming in their melodic weight, they record rather than create, though they more than diaristic. These are images in constant motion, a far cry from family photos with timeworn edges. Some speak with the clarity of a digital home video, while others drown in the timelessness of grief. Their cyclical structures lend a delicate urgency, one that speaks to the validation of reminiscence as a primary mode of expression. After such quiet, inexpressible splendor, to be confronted with the extroverted qualities of the Elegie for string orchestra (2002) is to experience the trembling heart of something ancient. And as the strings continue their serenade in Stille Musik (2002), we feel an acute suspension. Not of winged flight but of the marionetted body that knows its limits in the grand scheme of falling, never quite sustaining its foothold once found.

A stilling rendition of Der Bote for strings and piano (1996) is the album’s centerpiece, and one of Silvestrov’s most masterful forays into harmony. This distorted Mozartean wind tunnel of cloud and afterlife lies also at the heart of his Requiem for Larissa. And it is into afterlife that we continue with Zwei Dialog mit Nachwort for string orchestra and piano (2001/02). Dripping honey from a ruptured hive, this is music that luxuriates in the full spread of its pathos. As might a drop of ink into water, it opens its tendrils slowly, well aware that without the invisibility of its surroundings its mapping would mean nothing.

It bears noting that the Bagatellen were recorded by chance when, before and after this album’s orchestral sessions, Silvestrov played alone at the piano while the tape (such as it is in the digital age) was running. Although he never intended to contribute to this recording in such a physical way, we can only bow in gratitude that he did. One gets the sense that each fragment is a portrait of his life in miniature. In a world of tiresome postmodern gestures, sometimes we need to wrap ourselves in something so mysterious that it can be nothing but a comfort. Let this be your blanket.

Valentin Silvestrov: Metamusik / Postludium (ECM New Series 1790)

Valentin Silvestrov
Metamusik / Postludium

Alexei Lubimov piano
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded April 2001 at ORF Studio, Vienna
Engineer: Anton Reininger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Meta” is a prefix often thrown around without much thought as to its origins. The academic world of which I am a part is especially fond of it. Yet the nuance of “meta” as “transcending” (as in “metaphysical”) is a mistake born of frequent misuse and reinforcement. Its origins lie in the Greek preposition, which means “in the midst of, in pursuit or quest of.” These get us closer to the heart of Metamusik, the title of a one-movement symphony for piano and orchestra from Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov that forms the bulk of the third album dedicated to his music on the ECM New Series. And indeed, the opening proclamation of the selfsame composition already sounds as if it were in the midst of, if not in pursuit of, something. And while I normally find that Silvestrov’s motivic denouements emote more effectively in concentrated settings, in this case I find that the 48-minute running time allows both listeners and performers all the breathing room they need to delineate its finer anatomies. The soloist here is Alexei Lubimov, who first introduced us to Silvestrov in the ghostly recital, Der Bote. His role, however, is neither to lead nor respond, but to inhabit as many particles as he can of the piece’s opening Big Bang. These, he connects through a wavering orchestral environment with planetary care. He opens every note like an ocean in and of itself, ebbing and flowing simultaneously, redrawing the same lines along the shores of unpopulated worlds. It is that rare sound which mesmerizes by way of dark matter and black holes, falling without end into a void of shifting pathos. Whether our eyes are closed or open, we see nothing but the nebulae of our own consciousness, naked and diffuse.

If by now any of us expect to achieve familiarity in the accompanying Postludium, then we need only still ourselves before we are ready to see. The title here is another didactic one. It is Silvestrov’s default modality, the aural afterword to a non-existent referent. In short: an epilogue to silence. And though these same musicians may exert themselves and the composer may labor over the staves that engender the music’s emergence, our experience of it lacks the immediate visceral connection of having performed it. (It is just such a chain of meteoric intentions that binds us to the postlude as “genre.”) In acknowledging an emptiness from which forms all matter, we also know there is emptiness to be squeezed from the tangible, somehow beautiful in the embrace of our acoustic validations. We may float without direction, but Silvestrov seems to say that our voices, the very notecraft of our being, are the only compasses we need.

The power of this music speaks differently to all of us. It is a living force that mimics whatever vessel contains it. It is also a blank page: present yet weightless with meaning. Silvestrov’s is a sound-world of punctuation marks. It is up to us to fill in the words.

Alexei Lubimov: Der Bote – Elegies for Piano (ECM New Series 1771)


Alexei Lubimov
Der Bote – Elegies for Piano

Alexei Lubimov piano
Recorded December 2000, Radio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title of Alexei Lubimov’s second recital for ECM translates as “The Messenger,” and perhaps no more fitting sobriquet could apply to the Russian pianist in this collection of ten elegies spanning three centuries. In opening with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Fantasie für Klavier fis-Moll, Lubimov provides something of a meta-statement encompassing all that follows. After a dream-like introduction, both musician and composer throw the listener for a loop with a burst of virtuosic splendor before returning to slumber. The music is rooted at the outer cusp of the Baroque while also far ahead of its time in scope and romantic flair, and pairs surprisingly well with John Cage’s In a landscape. The latter receives a uniquely spirited treatment here. Comparing this to Herbert Henck’s ECM recording of Cage’s early piano music, on which a slower read adds four minutes to its duration, one hears it rather differently. Lubimov’s playful undulations recast the piece’s depth of immediacy in quickly flitting shadows. Either way, it is achingly beautiful, a singular composition from a composer whose melodic humility remains unparalleled.

The fumbling dance of Tigran Mansurian’s Nostalgia hints at revelry but succumbs to meditation, while the Abschied of Franz Liszt provides our steadiest elegiac thread so far that moves with the sway of windblown branches. Mikhail Glinka blots our vision with nostalgic hues in his Nocturne f-Moll “La separation, a faded photograph lost in the pages of a dusty book, in which one may pore over Frédéric Chopin’s Prélude cis-Moll op. 45. It is a tale of sorrow, fading in on the stagnant lake of an abandoned estate, long overgrown with neglect. Beam by beam the mansion crumbles, until fireflies take the place of the footsteps that once dotted its halls: a thousand years of history condensed into six minutes. The abstractions of Valentin Silvestrov’s Elegie are like the ghosts left behind, fractured through the passage of time and made visible by the glow of introspection. In the Elégie of Claude Debussy, we are distracted by a passing mysticism, swept by the wind into the light of daybreak far from our own. Alone and without recourse, we seek shelter in Béla Bartók’s Vier Klagelieder op. 9a, Nr. 1, finding in its sweeping gestures and impressionist fades the key to Silvestrov’s title work that finishes. A gorgeous deconstruction of Mozart in a kind of haunted chamber, it is a touch upon the shoulder from the afterlife. By its last note, one wonders whether it ever really existed.

Lubimov is a pianist who understands music’s humble beginnings. He cradles every note like a wounded bird, nurturing it with grace until it is well enough to fly on its own. Equally intelligent programming makes this a disc to remember, if not forget like the memory of a past too beautiful to reproduce with any claim to faith. But this he does, and with a quiet passion that welcomes us with open arms.

Alfred Schnittke/Dmitri Shostakovich: Lento (ECM New Series 1755)



Keller Quartett
András Keller violin
János Pilz violin
Zoltán Gál viola
Judit Szabó violoncello
Alexei Lubimov piano
Recorded June 2000
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Piano Quintet of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) begins where many chamber works might end: with the closing of eyes. It is behind these lids, the shadowy backdrops of which form the projection screen of our deepest mortalities, that the music remains. Even the Waltz of the second movement is a doppelgänger, its higher strings haunting the periphery like an epidemic. Such profound banalities are what make this a harrowing, if somnambulate, work. The piano’s role is very much subdued, providing regularity where there is none to be had. Rarely proclamatory, it reveals its deepest secrets when, at the end of the Andante, the sustain pedal is depressed merely for its metronomic effect in want of note value. The album takes its title from the fourth movement, a viscous, writhing creature that never shows its face. After enduring so many scars, the final Moderato tiptoes ever so gracefully around the fallen shards, gathering from each a snatch of light—just enough for a handful.

Schnittke very much admired the late works of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), of which the String Quartet No. 15, op. 144 cuts deepest. Completed in 1974, two years before Schnittke’s quintet, Shostakovich’s last quartet of a planned 24 consists of six almost seamless Adagios. At 37 minutes, it is the longest of his quartets, if not also the most ponderous. A few shocks interrupt us, as the forced pizzicati of the Serenade, but otherwise we are lulled in the deepening shade of a wilted tree that sways as it ever did at the hands of an unseen breeze. Ironically, the Nocturne provides the earliest intimations of sunrise, throughout which the cello smiles through its tears. A bitter smile, to be sure, but an unforgettable change of expression in the music’s otherwise tense features. We are allowed a single breath before the Funeral March that follows. A tough lyricism pervades, as in cello’s repeat soliloquies, all of which primes us for the cathartic Epilogue, in which is to be had a forgotten treasure, a time capsule buried in childhood and only now unearthed.

Although this is an album drawn in morbidity—Schnittke’s quintet finds its genesis in the death of the composer’s mother, while Shostakovich’s quartet premiered months before his own—it is supremely life-affirming, each work a breathing testament to indomitable creativities. The Keller Quartett, joined by Alexei Lubimov for the Schnittke, lay themselves bare at every turn, wrenching out by far the most selfless performances thus far recorded of this complementary pair.