I first became aware of Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov in July of 2012, when I encountered his ECM New Series release of the piano preludes of Claude Debussy. What drew my attention was Lubimov’s decision to make his recordings with two “historical” pianos, a 1913 Steinway and a 1925 Bechstein. That interest in seeking out the instrument best suited to the composer has now taken Lubimov in a new direction. The title of his latest ECM New Series recording, which was released a little over a week ago, is Tangere; and the selections are all taken from the late period in the life of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
“Tangere” is the Latin verb for “touch.” It is the topic of an essay that Lubimov provided for his new album, which is less than two pages long but has an impressively verbose title: “Sensitivity and Extravagance, or How Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach placed his fingers on the tangent piano, and how I place mine on his music.” This should cue the reader is that the album is the result of extensive research; and, as far as this particular reader is concerned, that research has served Lubimov well.
His instrument, the tangent piano, is one of those products of the transition from harpsichord to piano. It was popular in the early eighteenth century but was subsequently succeeded by the fortepiano, which, in turn, led to the pianoforte as we now know it. Like other instruments in the piano family, the strings are struck from below by a hammer that quickly withdraws, allowing the strings to vibrate until they are damped or decay naturally. The tangents were pieces of wood or metal, which were the part of the hammer that actually hit the strings. This design made sensitivity to how the key was struck by the player far greater than what is now encountered in current pianos.
Alexei Lubimov playing a tangent piano (photograph by Emil Matveev, courtesy of ECM)
This explains all the details that Lubimov packed into his title. Bach shared with his father (Sebastian) as much interest in pedagogy as in composition. However, while “Bach-the-father” was primarily interested in dexterity and inventiveness in performance, “Bach-the-son” was more interested in the potential that each note had to establish its own expressive identity.
That interest was a reflection of his circumstances. That “late period” covers the time he spent in Hamburg, when he succeeded his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, as kapellmeister (director of music). However, in contrast to his father’s appointment of the same name, Emanuel’s was a municipal appointment for the benefit of all of the city’s citizens, rather than just the churchgoers. Bach, like his predecessor Telemann, consequently had to worry about “public appeal.” Thus began an approach to “expressive performance” that would continue throughout music history, with composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Frédéric Chopin all setting forth new ways to seize audience attention through expressiveness.
As a result, this album is not only a document of a significant stage in the transition to the modern piano but also of a key shift in the practice of “music for its own sake,” conceived to appeal to an audience for its own virtues. The essay thus establishes Lubimov’s objective of performing Bach’s music in such a way that his expressive interpretation elicits that audience response of appeal. The fact that he held his position in Hamburg for about twenty years until his death in 1788 suggests that Bach succeeded very well in the opinion of Hamburg listeners.
Lubimov’s approach to performance offers a first-rate account of just what it was that those listeners found so appealing. Even with limited dynamic range, Lubimov can achieve sudden “surprise” effects that we are more likely to associate with Joseph Haydn or, for that matter, Haydn’s pupil Beethoven. Indeed, when Beethoven himself recognized Bach as a major influence, he was referring to Emanuel, rather than Sebastian!
Nevertheless, Lubimov’s technique is a subtle one, which definitely does not lend itself to listening to an iTunes stream through earbuds. Fortunately, the recording effort by Stephan Schellmann went to great lengths to provide technology good enough to capture much, if not all, of those subtleties. The result is an album that will provide generously satisfying rewards to attentive listening, provided the listener is given first-rate access to the audio signal.