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Dip Your Ears, No. 44 (Messe Noire)

available at Amazon
Shostakovich, Stravinksy, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Messe Noire,
ECM 1679

Messe Noire is a piano recital of Alex Lubimov’s in best ECM fashion. From the stark, immediately recognizable ECM-typical cover to the programming all the way to the name, taken from Scriabin’s 9th piano sonata. (Scriabin did not give that name to his sonata – it was attached by Alexei Podgaetsky in reference to its sinister nature compared with the open, light mysticism of the 7th sonata that Scriabin dubbed Messe Blanche.) Where Scriabin’s fairly dark work (he called it “saintly,” himself) concludes this disc of Russian piano sonatas of the first half of the 20th century, Stravinsky’s Serenade in A (1925 – dedicated to his wife) opens it. Hymn, Romanza, Rondoletto, and Cadenza Finale as movement titles already point to its neoclassical nature. It’s not so in a pastiche-like way, nor as harmonically obvious as the Pulcinella Suite, for example, but rather a cubist painting of whatever models and structures he used. It’s difficult to see it on the same level as the other works.

Shostakovich’s second sonata (1942) – especially the third movement, Moderato con moto - is very much DSCH, especially the dominant theme (F-sharp, B, B, D, D, D-sharp, D, C-sharp, B if – lacking a score – my ears are correct) and its variations which can remind of his preludes and fugues. At over 12 minutes, it’s by far the longest (if not most substantial) movement on the disc. (I ended up humming those nine notes for days.) A charged, superb Prokofiev sonata with ‘oiled muscles’ comes after the Shostakovich, before Lubimov comes to a most impressive performance of the Scriabin. Helped by excellent sound (a warm, full, round but not fuzzy piano appears right between the speakers – only for a Pollini recording might I prefer a bit more of an edge), Lubimov plays the 9th sonata (1913) with tremendous insight and calm. He takes his time in the single movement, clocking in at 8:45 where Michael Ponti, for example, needs just 7:05. (Ponti bangs a little, but appropriately so. Alas, his Vox recording suffers slightly from a glassy piano sound.)

Alexei Lubimov is known for his innovative programs as much as for his superior musicianship and championing of contemporary music, even when that was difficult to do in the Soviet Union. His pianism, too, proves to be outstanding. In some ways this could well be the pianistically most impressive disc this year – even if it will not likely be acknowledged as such by many. When has anyone put the Andante caloroso of the Prokofiev sonata so close to Beethoven? (Richter, undisputed master in these works, plays it with more urgency – perhaps because he got to know and play the work in a much more war-conscious context?) I am usually not too keen on multiple-composer discs but for something like this I’ll make a glad exception. Not music for everyone, but serious lovers of piano music or those interested in the repertoire probably want to hear this!

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