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“I wanted to hear Debussy in a different timbral guise, cloaked in the early 20th century colours that I would find on unique, specially selected instruments… In my search for an inspiring special sound I stumbled upon two excellent pianos that truly seduced me and breathed fresh life into the music… The music revealed itself to me from unknown angles, and like Ulysses bewitched by the Sirens, I let my pianos sing with their own voices and guide me into uncharted realms.” – Alexei Lubimov

A fortuitous encounter with an old Steinway in the Polish Embassy in Brussels – said to be the instrument Paderewski played in his recitals – stimulated Alexei Lubimov to think in new ways about these Debussy pieces he had played, often, over the last 40 years. Alexei Lubimov and fellow Russian pianist Alexei Zuev (a student of Lubimov’s since 2000) play “period instruments” here, but as Jürg Stenzl emphasizes in the liner notes, “they are concerned not with the mystique of ‘authentic original instruments’, but with the incomparably richer timbral vocabulary that Debussy posited for his music and displayed to supreme effect in his own playing. Moreover, the piano versions of two early works, ‘Prélude to the Afternoon of a Faun’ and ‘Trois Nocturnes’, which fully capture the text of the orchestral scores in their piano writing (unlike conventional ‘piano reductions’), bring out the structural, compositional and harmonic aspects with special clarity.”

Lubimov plays the 1913 Steinway (“divinely soft in pianissimo, resonant and marvellously suitable for unexpected colours”) on the second book of Preludes. On the first book he plays a 1925 Bechstein (“clear, sharply-etched, translucent and light, even in complex textures”). The instruments are heard together in the pieces arranged for two pianos. On the “Trois Nocturnes” (in the two piano transcription by Ravel), Lubimov plays the Steinway and Zuev the Bechstein, on “Prélude à l’après midi d’un faun” (in Debussy’s own transcription) vice versa.

The work of Claude Debussy is, arguably, 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. Debussy himself decried the concept of ‘impressionism’, the musical tendency with which he is most often identified, because he feared that superficial refinement might conceal the subtleties of a new musical idiom and its structural logic. Consequently, 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, encouraging open interpretation and response. As Debussy once said, “Music is a free art gushing forth, an open-air art, boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky and the sea.” It is in this spirit – sans rigeur, as Debussy repeatedly marked his music – that Alexei Lubimov plays these pieces.

Alexei Lubimov is widely recognised as both a champion of new music and an insightful interpreter of classical and baroque music. In 1968 in Moscow he premiered new works by Terry Riley and John Cage, and through the 1970s specialized in early music, also an enduring passion. His first ECM recital “Der Bote” (2000) scans history from C.P.E. Bach to Valentin Silvestrov and Tigran Mansurian. He has been one of the most important interpreters of new music from the former Soviet Union with landmark recordings of Silvestrov (“Metamusik”, “Postludium”, and more), Arvo Pärt (“Lamentate”), Schnittke (Piano Quintet). His album “Misterioso” brings together music of Silvestrov, Pärt and Ustvolskaya. Other recordings include “Messe Noire” with piano music of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Scriabin.

© Studio Svengali, December 2023
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