An Interview with Alexei Lubimov
Alexei Lubimov is a normal man with fingers of gold. A strange combination, at first glance, but one that suits him. He walks on stage, slight of stature, a few thin hairs left, thick, round glasses—the kind of person you wouldn’t normally give a second glance. Then he starts to play and everything changes. I met him in Berlin this March; he came across as educated, reflective, and unobtrusively confident.
At one point our conversation turned to the great historical Russian pianists. “I had nothing to do with Richter,” he said, in fragmentary, vivid German. “I had several opportunities to visit him at home. Never went. It wasn’t my place. I valued him. But I never felt like meeting him personally. I was 30 years younger. There were many people, even younger than me, who would love to have had him as a supporter. Not me.”
Instead, Lubimov studied with Heinrich Neuhaus, who himself taught Richter. But unlike many of his pianist colleagues from the Soviet Union, Lubimov never felt the need to go looking for a career as an international star. His role model was the composer, pianist and harpsichordist Andrei Volkonsky, who returned from an exile in Switzerland to Russia in 1948. Volkonsky wrote twelve-tone music under the suspicious noses of conservative Soviet-era music bureaucrats, and was introduced to the harpsichord by the East German Bach specialist Günther Ramin after a performance in Moscow. From there, baroque and Renaissance music made something of a comeback in the Soviet Union, where for a long time Bach and Vivaldi were the only composers going from that period.
Volkonsky returned resignedly to Switzerland in 1973. At the end of the 1960s, Lubimov began making a name for himself with performances of Cage, Stockhausen, and Ligeti, as well as Soviet avant-gardists like Silvestroy, Gubaidulina and Schnittke. That meant that his fame would be largely restricted to Russia; and yet, he never pretended to be a Soviet martyr. Another breakthrough came during a vacation in the West in the ‘70s, after which he brought the first Harnoncourt recordings to Moscow. Lubimov and his colleagues managed to get their hands on a few old harpsichords, traverse flutes, and viola da gamba. They began touring the country with their exotic repertoire.
After Perestroika things got easier. Lubimov, now in his 40s, was able to purchase a fortepiano and became one of the first people in his country who was able to play it. He received a recording contract with the Soviet label Melodija and started a Faculty for Contemporary and Historical Performance Practice at the renowned Tchaikovsky Conservatory, of which he was dean for 12 years.
Russia’s early music scene is blossoming. Lubimov now performs as a soloist in early and contemporary repertoire, playing both old and new instruments. Despite his storied career and mature artistic personality, Lubimov remains on the outskirts of the classical music scene. Then again, it seems like that’s probably fine with him. He has everything he needs.
VAN: You were one of the early music pioneers in the Soviet Union, but you had to wait a long time to be recognized for your work in the West.
Alexei Lubimov: I was following my own path. It took until 1990, when the French label Erato invited me to take part in a project with the Mozart Sonatas. They had heard that there was this crazy person in Russia playing Mozart on the original instruments. At that time, Western companies were hungry for fresh blood from the former Soviet republics. I recorded the complete Mozart Sonatas with them.
Your taste in repertoire often doesn’t align with the priorities of Western labels, and you don’t appear interested in the market. Would you say you make music mostly for yourself?
When it comes to music, I’m admittedly selfish. I only play what speaks to me, what touches me. I don’t play music if it isn’t an adventure. I don’t see Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff as adventurers, for example. Prokofiev, maybe, theoretically. I’ve played two of his pieces in my entire life. I’ve played much more Stravinsky.
How do you feel about the great composers for the piano: Liszt, Chopin, Schumann?
For a long time I thought of Chopin as a third rate musician. Until I was 45 or even later. And composers like Liszt and Schumann speak to me even less than musicians who didn’t write anything for the piano, like Gustav Mahler for example.
How about Shostakovich?
What do you mean?
Not even the Preludes and Fugues?
I don’t know them well enough. There was a period when I was interested in Shostakovich, he was certainly important. But his world is foreign to me.
So what do you think of Schumann?
The same as I think of Chopin. He was everywhere during my youth at conservatory. Everybody had to play him. He just didn’t compose for me. I discovered Schumann in my 40s, through his symphonies and works like “Szenen aus Goethes Faust.” I’ve always loved and played his chamber music. He’s certainly relevant. I came to his sonatas late; the first and the third are wonderful. But the early pieces—“Papillons,” “Carnaval,” “Variations on the name ‘ABEGG’”—they’re just not for me.
You played the Violin Sonatas with Tatiana Grindenko.
Yes, they’re fantastic. Magnificent gestures, but very little material. A lot like the Violin Concerto.
You play early repertoire almost exclusively on the instruments of the time. What is so different about the original instruments and their copies, compared to modern pianos?
They’re two completely different worlds. I can’t tell you whether Stein is better than Steinway. They’re different. I have to say, the keyboards with parallel strings in the body are definitely better than the diagonally-crossed ones. Historical instruments offer a great diversity of sound and technique, of atmosphere and aura. The different qualities of the registers mean that you’re able to imitate strings, woodwinds, even the entire orchestra.
Each epoch has its own instruments and ideal sound. And each instrument can give us insight into what the composer was thinking and hearing while he was working. For me, playing early music on a modern piano is a transcription, not the original piece. On the other hand, each old piano forces you to develop a version of the piece that only works on that particular instrument.
So you might as well play the music on an accordion as on a modern piano?
Or on a synthesizer, why not? I have nothing against jazz or synthesizer versions of Bach. It’s just not my thing. Maybe I’m too narrow-minded. But for me...I just don’t get Bach on a modern piano.
You’ve recalled that Alfred Schnittke heard you and your colleagues playing Bach on harpsichords and fortepianos. He thought you were mocking Bach.
He didn’t get the idea. And he was missing the context, which is that the modern piano is in a kind of crisis. We’re so used to the sound, we’ve been hearing it for so long, that our ability to receive it is almost used up. Our threshold for noticing things is very high. You always have to fan the flames somehow.
The problem is that the possibilities of the modern piano have been almost completely exhausted. The construction and the sound limit what you can do. But on old instruments you get more perspective, start thinking in different directions. I’d go as far as to say that you play more freely, take more risks, are even more “modernist” and—most important of all—extreme.
Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata is a good example.
It’s impossible to play on a modern piano.
At least three of Beethoven’s musical ideas in the piece are impossible to realize on the modern piano. His pedal markings are very precise, related to the dominant and tonic harmonies. On old pianos, one of the harmonies will disappear….Take the finale of the “Walstein,” the Rondo pastorale, which was a French trend in Beethoven’s time. Right from the beginning, you have these overlapping pedals that create a painting-like effect, but which are impossible on the modern piano. There are also other almost visual effects, like the groups of repeated notes in the bass, which are supposed to create the illusion of a breaking storm. It just sounds like an étude on the modern piano.
On the fortepiano, you can use the una corda, moderator and pedal to create surprising effects. The octave glissandi in the coda of the “Waldstein,” marked pianississimo, are impossible, and at the correct tempo on a modern piano, they sound like thunder or an étude again—instead of the faint breeze Beethoven intended. The relationship between the extremities of the range on the modern piano simple can’t reproduce what the composer was thinking. It’s too clumsy, the sforzati are too long, too strong, and too massive for Beethoven; it’s almost impossible to recognize what’s going on behind them. The “Waldstein” and “Moonlight” Sonatas, in particular, get completely ruined by the modern piano.
When you’re preparing an interpretation, do you look for inspiration beyond the score, say in letters and documents?
Letters, sometimes. I definitely look at the literature around the piece: the musicological, analytical and historical texts. I’m less interested in the biographical works. What happened when and where is fairly superficial, but through background work you discover endlessly illuminating associations. Not just to understand the piece, but to answer the question: How can you make the piece lively, brilliant, and with such a contour that a listener today can understand it and realize what it’s about?
What is it about?
Are you asking about “content”? What is content, anyway? It’s a romantic idea that doesn’t really bother me. Content is the form, the ambience, the language of the music itself. That’s what I’m interested in.
Harnoncourt thought the same thing.
He was right. It’s about a genuinely musical language that can’t be expressed in words. That was normal during the baroque period. The French musical language was completely different from the English. Linguistic differences, musical differences: that’s content.
If you play Scarlatti as it’s written, it’s the most boring music in the world. You need to look behind the music: folk dances, Spanish and Portuguese folklore, rhythmic imprecisions, dissonances, improvisations. The best examples for me are the recordings by Pierre Hantaï and Andreas Staier. Hantaï’s Scarlatti alternates between a circus, a folk dance, a pastorale. He felt the potency of every note, the flower that can blossom out of it if you let it.
You are a rare breed of pianist: with your passion and knowledge for contemporary, classical, and early music, and your obvious lack of interest in the romantic repertoire. You’re often mentioned in the same breath as John Cage.
I think it was so important that Cage made his own work independently, against all the trends and styles that were going on around him.
That sounds a little bit like you’re describing yourself. I read you worked with Cage; there’s also an old photograph of the two of you.
I started learning his works at a young age, in 1969 or 1970. I didn’t meet him in person until 20 years later. All the work I did on his music was without him or his advice. I met him in 1988 when he came to Moscow. He had been invited by the Composers’ Association to a new music festival, and I was introduced to him as his main interpreter in what was then the Soviet Union. There was a meeting of students from the conservatory in Moscow, and I played some of his older works for him. He was very impatient and unhappy. He said, “Why are you playing this old stuff? It’s junk. Play the new pieces!”
Where you able to play some of the newer pieces?
We did his newer works later on. I was the organizer and the—how do I put this?—the soul of a series of avant-garde theater events. But recently I’ve been going back to his earlier pieces for prepared piano, from the 1940s and ‘50s.
What attracts you to those works?
The new sound world, the type of imagination, the many wondrous associations you can draw—and the fact that the music speaks differently in different times. It reinvents itself.
On one of your CDs, you juxtapose Cage and Erik Satie.
Yes, on a CD with works by Satie and Stravinsky. Cage was hugely enthusiastic about Satie, he discovered him for America. When I started getting to know Satie, I had the idea of doing his last work “Entr’Act,” a piece of film music for René Clair from one of Satie’s ballets, on a prepared piano, instead of a normal one. It sounds like an orchestra. I put Satie in a Cage [laughs].
In 1998, you released a CD of Schubert’s Divertissements, with Andreas Staier.
Besides being my friend, Andreas is probably my favorite fortepiano player. We met in the early ‘90s. It was a dream come true for both of us to finally record the pieces for piano four-hands on historical instruments. We did two rare works, the Divertissement “à la Hongroise” and the Divertissement “sur des motifs originaux français,” a wonderful piece in three movements, with fabulous variations in the second movement. It’s complex, with long movements like a sonata—a real symphony. Very serious music, even tragic at times. But it works unbelievably well on a fortepiano of Schubert’s time, which has five pedals.
Why is that?
It has to do with the rich way Schubert uses registers. We had a lot of fun marking the different orchestrations and deciding who would use which pedal, and when. Besides the una corda and the moderator, you had the janissary stop, bassoon stop, soft pedal, and a piece of parchment we’d put between the strings. We’d use the janissary stop more often than the musicians of Schubert’s time. It has two components: the drumstick, which gives the underside of the soundboard a hard hit; and a metal plate. It sounds like cymbals in an orchestra. You can use the pedal to get a hit and a cymbal crash at the same time. And if you open the damping of the strings as well, the plate ends up directly on the string, which sounds hollow and wonderfully strange.
It sounds like a kind of comedy for the ears. Is there a specific intention behind all this?
It helps the music.
It seems to me that you have a rare ability to get at the universal heart of the music you play. How do you think you manage that?
When I play music it always feels like going for a refreshing walk. I feel more like a traveler than a pianist. Music is an open, multifaceted world for me. I travel it with great hope, expecting to find the unexpected [laughs]. ¶