Preludes to a century
Not too many keyboard artists range in repertoire from Mozart on the fortepiano to John Cage on the prepared piano. Fewer still receive the credit for introducing both to an entire nation. Then again, there aren't many pianists comparable to Alexei Lubimov, the 69 year-old Russian whose vast curiosity and versatility would be extraordinary for one half his age — or one who grew up in the artistic freedom of the west. One of the last pupils of the famed pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus (who also taught Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and Radu Lupu), Lubimov gravitated as a young pianist to early music and new music. He gave the works of both Cage and minimalist Terry Riley their Soviet debuts in 1968, while championing other leading avant-garde composers of both the west (Stockhausen, Boulez, et al.) and the Soviet block (Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Pärt). When the authorities clamped down on his modernist explorations in the '70s, Lubimov did a musical about-face and became among the first of his countrymen to explore the then-new sonorities of the harpsichord and the fortepiano. In the last 20 years, he's been a welcome and versatile presence on the classical scene. You might think of Lubimov as the keyboard equivalent of the better-known violinist Gidon Kremer, another ceaselessly curious ex-Soviet artist who takes on everything from Baroque to brand new music with fire, commitment and great chops.
What does Alexei Lubimov have for us this time? Merely the first great piano collection of the 20th century, Claude Debussy's Preludes (sound clips and scores available). In 24 brief pieces, composed between 1909 to 1913, the great French composer does for piano music what he had done for orchestral music in works like Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and La mer — liberate harmony, elevate sonority to a primary role, and create wonderful sensations of sound to savor in the moment. With evocative titles like (in translation) "What the West Wind Saw," "The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air" and the ever-popular "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair," Debussy's Preludes are mini-masterpieces of musical depiction...except that in the printed music, Debussy placed the titles at the end of the Preludes, not before. In case you're wondering, Debussy's Preludes are not preludes "to" anything. It was Chopin, inspired by the Preludes and Fugues of J.S. Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," who made the Prelude a separate genre. In turn, Chopin's 24 Preludes, Op. 28, served as the inspiration to Debussy, in addition to such diverse composers as Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Gershwin.
Fittingly, it's the sonorité of Lubimov's performances that distinguish them from the many other fine recordings of the Preludes. Listen to WFCR during the 10:00 hour on Wednesday to the first three Preludes, Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi), Voiles (Sails) andLe vent dans la plaine (The Wind on the Plain), and revel in the clarity, transparency and wide tonal palette of the 1925 Bechstein grand on which Lubimov plays the twelve Preludes that make up Debussy's Book I (he switches to a 1913 Steinway for Book II). Why a German piano for a composer who proudly signed his name "Claude Debussy, Musicien Français?" Because, for their warm sound, German pianos, especially Bechsteins and Blüthners, were Debussy's favorites.
We'll play the entirety of Alexei Lubimov's new ECM New Series set of Debussy's Preludes over the next eight weekday mornings on WFCR. So please, tune in for a quiet and subtle musical revolution, for 24 morsels of sound and sensuality, and for works that opened the door for an entire century of piano music.
P.S. To hear some of Debussy's earlier piano works, as well as some of Ravel's best, check out this concert coming up on July 29. The pianist, Yuan Sheng, presented one of the best Chopin concerts I have ever heard at the same venue in 2010. His piano, an 1877 Érard, is just right for the works on the program. And it's a benefit for a great musical cause, the study center of the Frederick Historic Piano Collection. See you there?