While reading pianist Alexei Lubimov’s liner notes to his new ECM release,
Debussy: Preludes, I was reminded of a recent documentary titled Pianomania. In the film, viewers are treated to a behind-the-scenes look at all of the elements that go into a creating a world-class performance on a Steinway piano. As Mr. Lubimov states, “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.” It certainly came as no surprise that one of the pianos he chose was a 1913 Steinway. The other is a 1925 Bechstein, the sound of which is described as “clear, sharply-etched, translucent and light.”
I mention all of this background to illustrate the fact that there are countless variables when it come to performances of music written well over 100 years ago. The Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov has been recognized as a brilliantly insightful interpreter of classical and baroque music over the years, as well as a champion of new music. This last point was dramatically brought home when he premiered works by such composers as Terry Riley and John Cage in Moscow, way back in 1968. More recently, he has worked with Arvo Part, among many others.
All of this comes together in a very special way over the course of the two discs that comprise his homage to Claude Debussy on Preludes. Disc one features a solo Lubimov tour de force on the Bechstein, performing Debussy’s Premier Livre (Book One), which was composed in 1909-10. The piece consists of 12 preludes (hence the title), and are unusually distinct.
The first, “Danseuses de Delphes” (“Dancers of Delphi“) is a somber invocation to the legendary dancers. “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest” (“What the West Wind Has Seen“) is as chaotic as the wild wind it describes. “La cathédrale engloutie” (“The Submerged Cathedral“) is magnificently soothing, while the final “Minstrels” is another perfectly titled piece that probably could have passed as a “pop” song once upon a time.
This first disc is rounded out in a duet format, with Lubimov being joined by Alexei Zuev, a student of his since 2000. The two collaborate on a very complimentary composer of Debussy’s era, Maurice Ravel. The tri-part Troi Nocturnes (1909) features Lubimov on the Steinway, and Zuev on the Bechstein. Ravel admired Debussy a great deal, and his Troi Nocturnes is a marvelous choice. Its inclusion allows the listener the opportunity to hear the two incredible pianists playing together, which is a wonder in itself. As a bit of a bonus, it also allows us to hear the distinctive sounds of both pianos as well.
The second disc opens with another collaborative effort, “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (“Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun“). While the piece was composed for orchestra in 1895, and became the basis for the famous ballet by Nijinsky, the two pianists pare it down to its essence here. Their playing is majestic.
It is little wonder that so many composers have cited Debussy as a major influence. There are probably 1,000 reasons, but just hearing Lubimov and Zuev play this music effortlessly transports the listener to the poem it was inspired by, written by Stéphane Mallarmé.
The finale is Debussy’s second Book of Preludes. Lubimov is solo again, on that elegant 1913 Steinway. The 12 pieces that comprise the second Book are as varied as those of the first. Debussy again shows that he felt no boundaries in his stylistic forays. From the opening, mysteriously haunting “Brouillards,” to the explosive closer, “Feux d’artifice,” the man was willing to open any musical door he was drawn to.
I am particularly drawn to “General Lavine,” which is the sixth prelude. It has been described as “eccentric,” which is as apt a description as any I suppose. What “General Lavine” really reminds me of though is some of the music that Thelonious Monk would compose 40 years later.
In fact, many jazz pianists have listed Debussy as an influence, including Duke Ellington and Bill Evans. In new music, one can certainly hear Debussy in the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, among others. Possibly the highest compliment came from Pierre Boulez. He once called “Afternoon of a Faun “The awakening of modern music,” and that “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.”
Preludes is a remarkable achievement, in every way. The musical choices and presentation are outstanding, and it is one of the finest of ECM’s New Series line I have heard this year.