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.
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.
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.
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.