“I play Haydn after a black day and feel a simple warmth in my hands,” begins a poem by Tomas Tranströmer. In a later pair of stanzas, it continues: “The music says freedom exists and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax. I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.”

The image of Tranströmer’s pianist finding such stability within the act of playing Haydn came to mind last week after Alexei Lubimov played an anti-war concert in Moscow that was cut short by police. Witness Lubimov’s 2014 recording of the composer’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross,” arranged for solo piano. Lubimov plays a tangent piano, a rarity of the 18th century that combines the soft, rounded edges of the piano’s tone with the guttural grain of a harpsichord. While Haydn’s music can sound deceptively simple out of context, this adds a dramaturgical texture, a palimpsest of meaning, on Christ’s seven sayings on the cross—most apt, perhaps, given the events of the last week being the first: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

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In “The Seven Last Words,” Haydn gives us despondency and deep suffering, but also clarity; at times even a simple warmth. The sting of the vinegar Jesus is forced to drink on the cross (a sting made all the more acerbic by the sound of Lubimov’s instrument) is tempered by the spiritual reconciliation that Jesus offers to one of the thieves crucified alongside him (“Verily I say unto thee: Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise”). Much like the composer’s “La Resurrezione,” and very much unlike the Bach works for the Easter season, “The Seven Last Words” is content to allow ecumenical splendor lie fallow in order to replenish the nutrients in the soil of humanity. In piano reduction, this is rendered all the more intimate and searching; Lubimov is the lone voice in the wilderness. 

There’s a similar sense of searching and esoterica in Valentyn Silvestrov’s piano sonatas. Alexei Lubimov was the dedicatee of the first, and he gave the world premiere recording of all three in 1992 for Erato, along with the composer’s Cello Sonata (with Ivan Monighetti). Earlier this month, Warner Classics rushed a digital reissue of the album—“You may have seen the moving images of Valentyn Silvestrov, 84, the most celebrated living composer in Ukraine, fleeing his country at the very last moment and finally finding refuge in Germany,” the website copy breathlessly reads. (In fairness, it’s certainly not the industry’s crassest co-opting of the war.)

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Lubimov swims in the same still waters with Silvestrov as he does with Haydn, playing with an interiority that lends itself to the soul-searching nature of the music. If your speaker volume isn’t at its upper limits, you’ll likely miss the first few notes and enter into a conversation that has already started. More likely, it started long before Silvestrov began putting notes on paper: In the composer’s own words, “I don’t create music, I am just writing down what I draw from the genetic well.”

Yet, as Philip Ross Bullock writes, “Silvestrov’s music is about the impossibility of recreating the past.” This dichotomy forms a middle ground—not always comfortable—in his works; at once indebted to history and ambivalent towards historicity. It’s a tightrope walk, balancing lyricism with atonality, and the effect seems to be somewhere between Ophelia’s declaration that “we know what we are, but not what we may be” and the Talking Heads’ theory that “we know where we’re going, but we don’t know where we’ve been.” Faced with so much information, the role of the soloist is to imitate a person looking on the world calmly. 

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That can, of course, be a very tall order. Given the pratfalls of recreating the past, I’m loath to suggest self-anesthetizing with Beethoven (“Unites Humanity!™” “Universal Language!™”). Still, Radu Lupu’s recordings of the Third and Fifth Piano Concertos are a tonic, more refreshment than tool for disassociation. They, too, are not interested in recreating the past. In reviewing Lupu’s performance of all five works in 2005, Bernard Holland writes: “With a little rearranging of the numbers, the five Beethoven concertos create a map leading from 18th- to 19th-century sensibilities.” The first, bearing Haydn’s fingerprints, is “what the performer makes of it: either a last long breath of the Classical age or a step into Romanticism.” 

Like Lubimov, Radu Lupu—who died on April 17—preferred to go a mile deep into the genetic well rather than a mile wide, trading broad and bombastic gestures for an internal introspection. Even on recordings, it’s possible with other pianists to pick up drops of holy water hand-flinging; in Lupu’s case, his restraint comes through. This 1983 recording is at first unassuming; it opens with the Fifth Concerto, whose first four minutes are mostly orchestral bravado. The first real solo is a shout above the din, not a red-carpet entry. Through this very narrow pinhole, however, a camera obscura effect of wonder, wanting, warmth, and wildness is cast. The effect sneaks up on you and it comes as a surprise when you tune into it. Five minutes into the second movement of the “Emperor” Concerto, as threadbare as an antique fainting couch, my heart goes concave from holding my breath. 

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Perhaps more shocking in a week that saw the deaths of Lupu and composer Harrison Birtwistle was the death of Nicholas Angelich at the age of 51. The strangeness was heightened in the timing—just one day after Lupu, one of his stylistic forebears. That both pianists had a fondness for Brahms (to whom Angelich was connected by two degrees via his teacher Leon Fleischer) speaks to their shared sensibilities of quiet reflection and expressivity. Perhaps his final studio recording, Angelich’s Prokofiev album from last year evokes a similar sensation as Lubimov’s Haydn: the intimacy distilled from an orchestral work skillfully transcribed for solo keyboard. 

Much like Lupu’s midsection of the “Emperor” Concerto, Angelich takes on the parting scene from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” as a moment of radical pause. A work you’ve heard time and again, can predict in your sleep, rendered breathtakingly, heart-catchingly new, in an arrangement played with tender-footed tempi that trace the intensity, and awkwardness, of new love. It’s a progression that, frozen on any one frame, looks more like a cubist portrait than a Romantic tableau. 

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“Romeo and Juliet Before Parting” closes out nearly 90 minutes of Prokofiev on Angelich’s recording, which begins on shakier ground: the thorniness of the Piano Sonata No. 8, the Ukrainian-born composer’s own grappling with both war and state censorship, and the “Visions fugitives,” which sound like Liszt’s years of pilgrimage, reduced down to more viscous nanoseconds of wandering. The potent intensity of the Sonata would make most sense as the conclusion to this album, the final notes that hover over the afterglow. Even the quieter conclusion to “Visions” gives something concrete to hold onto. Ending with “Before Parting,” however, is like stopping mid-sentence. It’s certainly not the end of the ballet—just the scene of Romeo leaving for Mantua—and it trails off, hinting at a “to be continued” in the score. ¶

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