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Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov fittingly honors the woman who insulted Stalin to his face

Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov fittingly honors the woman who insulted Stalin to his face
Pianist Alexei Lubimov performs at Monday Evening Concerts at Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School on Monday. (Monday Evening Concerts)

Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Daniil Trifonov exhibited the promise of a spectacular and probing new era of Russian pianism in his Los Angeles recital. Three days later, across the street at the Monday Evening Concerts series, Alexei Lubimov offered some very useful context of what Russian pianism might — must? — stand for.

Lubimov is the most Russian of pianists, except when he is challenging Russian music orthodoxy from all sides and getting away with it. Monday night in the Colburn School's Zipper Concert Hall, he paid tribute to Maria Veniaminovna Yudina, who was one of the 20th century's most Russian of pianists, except when she was busy breaking every rule in the Soviet book and getting away with it.

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Although neither Yudina (1899-1970) nor Lubimov (born 1944) could be called a celebrity — Lubimov's audience was maybe a 20th the size of Trifonov's, and Yudina has been hardly heard of outside Russia — both are pianists who have had a profound and lasting influence on their culture, musically and politically. Theirs has been the radical approach of not so much antagonizing as simply carrying on, seemingly (on the surface, anyway) oblivious to antagonism.

Yudina's recordings reveal a Russian pianist with a big, old-school, rounded and ringing sound. A deep musical thinker — someone once said that to her the ocean was only knee-deep — she sought the spiritual core in the weightiest works of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. She was supposedly Stalin's favorite pianist, and legend has it that a disc of her playing a Mozart piano concerto was on the dictator's record player when he was found dead.

Yet she was the rare Jewish dissident artist who could insult Stalin to his face and somehow stay out of Siberia. After Stalin, she championed the still forbidden Western modern music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. In the 1960s as the unlikely grande dame of Russian pianists, she made contact with the avant-garde likes of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen and championed young Soviet rebels such as Alfred Schnittke.

Lubimov revered Yudina in his student days and has followed in her footsteps. In the 1970s, he broke the news to the Moscow underground of what was happening in the U.S. with John Cage and with the Minimalists, and that proved a major influence on the post-Shostakovich generation. When the authorities clamped down on him, he subversively turned to "harmless" early music and period keyboards, in the process unearthing long-forgotten wild music, some from Russia's past. This too proved a revelation to composers looking for a way out of the approved patriotic musical strictures.

That's a lot of legacy to get into a concert program, and it wasn't easy to make sense of the mishmash Lubimov came up with, some of which was repetitive of his previous two Monday Evening Concerts programs in recent years. Ever the sly pianist, he got away with it.

One of Lubimov's survival skills clearly has been the chameleon nature of his playing. He began with Schubert's Four Impromptus, D. 899, and he followed that with Valentin Silvestrov's "Post Scriptum." The pianist didn't tell us what to read into any of this, other than the fact that Schubert's late essays in wondrous lyricism were favorites of Yudina. Her recording of them is an exercise in generating awe.

However, 25 years ago, just as the Soviet Union was coming apart, Lubimov recorded these impromptus on a fortepiano from Schubert's day, bringing out all kinds of surprising tonal effects on a closely miked old instrument, representing Schubert as a revelatory new-music radical not otherworldly dreamer, an overthrower of history. Around that same time, Silvestrov wrote a piece for violin and piano that dawdles on a mawkish melody that crumbles like a plaster statue of Stalin. This might be heard as the Ukrainian composer's giddy postscript to Soviet Kiev. (Still a revolutionary, the vocally anti-Putin Silvestrov participated in the 2014 Maidan demonstrations that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovich.)

Monday, Lubimov played the Schubert on a modern Steinway grand grandly and loudly — the sound-insulating curtains were removed — as though calling Yudina back from the dead. For "Post Scriptum," the pianist was joined by violinist Movses Pogossian, who played with an uncannily eerie tone splendidly gauged for shocking irony.

After intermission, Lubimov preceded three short piano works by reading poems by Boris Pasternak, as Yudina sometimes would during her samizdat-themed recitals in the 1950s. Lubimov's pieces were: Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky's 1976 "Musique Triste, Parfois Tragique" (Sad Music, Sometimes Tragic), a hallucinatory deconstruction of the fourth Schubert impromptu that came about after Lubimov turned the Azerbaijan composer onto Terry Riley's "In C"; C.P.E. Bach's late 18th century hallucinatory Fantasia in C, H. 284; and Galina Ustvolskaya's relentlessly hammering, aggressively loud 1988 Piano Sonata No. 6.

By this point, Lubimov sought restoring order in Haydn's 45th and last piano trio, with cellist Clive Greensmith joining Lubimov and Pogossian. How this relates to Yudina or anything else wasn't obvious. But Haydn's trio are marvelous, overlooked inventions, full of the unexpected. The performance remained true to the high ideals that characterized every aspect of Yudina's chaotic, incautious life in which music always came first. In other words, it was a terrific performance.

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