Despite his advanced age and the chaos surrounding him, Richard Strauss remained highly productive well into the 1940s. As the Second World War was coming to an end in 1944-45, the eighty-year-old composer was working on his Oboe Concerto and Sonatina No. 2 for winds, as well as the Metamorphosen for strings. While the latter work was an explicit response to the destruction Strauss was witnessing, in the Concerto and the Sonatina the composer seemed to be turning his mind away from the events surrounding him. There is a pastoral quality to the oboe concerto, with a highly tuneful solo part and more than occasional touches of nostalgia for the 18th century. Similarly, Strauss headed the score of the sonatina with a dedication ‘to the spirit of the immortal Mozart at the end of a life full of thankfulness’.
As a glance at the titles for this release indicates, this is pretty much an album of reconstructions. In his learned and usefully comprehensive booklet notes, Geoffrey Burgess describes how Bach’s concertos for harpsichord can be shown to have had other intended solo instruments, the oboe in particular, in mind. Bach wrote more solos for the oboe into his cantatas than for any other instrument, and so the lack of concertante works for the instrument argues that several may have been lost or have only survived in other guises.
Alexei Lubimov is a Russian pianist who also plays fortepiano and harpsichord. In his early years he studied at the Moscow Central Music School, and in 1963, entered the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Heinrich Neuhaus and Lew Naumov. He developed a strong interest in Baroque music and 20th century modernist works. Lubimov gave the Soviet premieres of many western compositions, including pieces by Charles Ives, Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, Terry Riley, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, which brought censorship from the Soviet authorities. For a number of years he was prevented from traveling outside the Soviet Union. Turning to his interest in period instruments and authentic performance practices, he founded the Moscow Baroque Quartet and co-founded the Moscow Chamber Academy with Tatiana Grindenko.
The brief opening piece for chorus on this new release, "Da Pacem Domine," is based on a 9th century Gregorian work and has the usual, familiar–and very beautiful–Pärt-ian characteristics: a soft, endless stream of easy tritones and harmonies that make this plea for peace immensely moving. The major work, Lamentate, is scored for large orchestra and solo piano–a very unusual combination for Pärt. Even his fans will be surprised. In ten brief sections, it begins with a quiet drum roll, immediately followed by horn calls. There are forte explosions for full orchestra and piano, with heavy percussion. At times the only thing we hear is a hushed piano part with strings supporting very quietly. The effect is dark yet alluring. It ends peacefully. This is another stunning CD of Pärt's music for his fans–old and new.
The title of ECM's release of works by three composers born in the former Soviet Union perfectly captures the mood of the CD – it is truly mysterious. Although more than half a century separates the first of these pieces from the most recent, they share a sense of otherness that defies easy explanation. The pieces are not so much mysterious in the sense of being eerie (although there are several moments that might raise the hairs on the back of your neck if you were listening alone in the dark); they are unsettling because they raise more questions than they answer.
Comprising three centuries of noted composers' "minor" works, Lubimov's Der Bote (The Messenger) bears out its title with short, introspective pieces that capture thoughts of nostalgia, mourning, and meditation. The first work, C.P.E. Bach's 1787 Fantasy, sounds amazingly avant-garde, full of surprising darts and turns. And the experimental 20th-century composer John Cage's "In a Landscape" is an even bigger surprise. Instead of random keyboard plink-plunks, it's a diaphanous Debussyan tone poem, bound to startle party guests playing Name That Composer… –Dan Davis