IVES; BERG; WEBERN Concord
Pairing Ives with Second Viennese School composers is not usually the done thing. All the more reason then to attempt a coalition between American idealism and Viennese cool, especially if you’re Alexei Lubimov, who risked life and limb during the Soviet era by performing Schoenberg, Boulez and Stockhausen.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about his new disc. Logic binds the programme together: as Webern was writing his Variations in 1936, John Kirkpatrick was readying himself to premiere Ives’s Concord Sonata two years later, and the questioning but ordered tonality of Berg’s Piano Sonata acts as a well-chosen harmonic buffer. The Ives was recorded live in 1997 and the sound is clear if one-dimensional – more than can be said for the Webern and Berg, recorded in ’99, performances fatally undermined by unusually distracting audience noise.
Philip Mead’s recording had an easy win in my Concord Sonata Collection (11/12) because Mead felt in unique communion with Ives’s architectural whimsy: structures colliding, fusing, crumbling as they are forming. But Lubimov’s earlier performance from 1995 (recorded at IRCAM!) ran him a close second, and what a pity that this performance should feel so correct and blandly chivalrous in comparison. The notes are no problem – in ‘The Alcotts’ Lubimov punches out those harmoncially incongruous grace notes like he means business – but elsewhere there’s a tendency to smooth over moments of rupture, to tame the Concord beast. Mead ingests the detail of Ives’s score to the point where spontaneity rules; Lubimov’s performance has settled into 9-to-5 routine. No ad lib viola here, but Marianne Henkel makes a decent job of the flute cameo in ‘Thoreau’ – albeit lacking the momentous anti-momentum of a structure winding itself down that Lubimov achieved in 1995.