Erik Satie and Claude Debussy were friends (usually) and contemporaries; both were turn-of-the-(20th)-century French composers who stretched the possibilities of sound and listening. Debussy’s piano music is highly imagistic, a musical version of the Symbolist poetry movement he found so inspiring; Satie’s is more oblique, suggesting moods rather than images, though occasionally he evoked visuals with such headscratcher titles as “Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear” (of which there are seven) and Embryons desséchés (Dessicated embryos). Alexei Lubimov’s recent late-night recital at the Mostly Mozart Festival alternated rippling, dappled notes of Debussy with the playful simplicity of Satie’s music, contrasting vivid Debussyan images with the static yet aimless wandering of Satie’s rarely-performed piano works.

Alexei Lubimov © Francois Sechet
Alexei Lubimov
© Francois Sechet

Mr Lubimov was most convincing in his deadpan delivery of several underrated Satie works, beginning with the delightful early works Prelude to Act I of Le fils des étoiles and Gymnopédie no. 1. This Gymnopédie (so named because Satie thought of himself as more of a “gymnopedist” than a composer) has accompanied many movie protagonists as they walk down sidewalks (often in a drizzling rain) contemplating a life-changing event and where to go from there. It was more than refreshing to hear the notes emanating from the skillful fingers of Mr Lubimov rather than a screen. With ever-so-slight syncopations – or, rather, graceful misalignments – between the left hand and right hand, Mr Lubimov managed to capture the happy-yet-melancholy, playful-yet-serious essence of Satie.

More playful than serious were the excerpts from Sports et Divertissements, during which Mr Lubimov was joined by the equally deadpan speaker Thomas Meglioranza as narrator of Satie’s series of unfortunate, outlandish games. “I suggest you turn its pages with a tolerant thumb and with a smile, for this is a work of pure whimsy,” Mr Meglioranza said by way of preface before immediately diving into the “Choral inappétissant”. (To be played “crabbed and cantankerous... on an empty stomach.”) Thankfully Mr Lubimov made no attempt to dress up the truly awful chorale, best described as Satie vomiting up Bach, letting its mordant wretchedness shine through. The other sports (La chasse, Le yachting, Le bain de mer, etc.) were just as ironic, though more fluid and pleasing to the ear. In a lovely programming feature, Satie’s existential Feux d’artifice (the final “sport”) contrasted with the smoky swirls of Debussy’s Feux d’artifice.

Mr Lubimov’s performance of this particular piece left much to be desired, however. Though his playing was as dynamic and vibrant as ever, it lacked a certain precision or polish which had been present for most of the concert. Mr Lubimov’s fingers slipped and let passages got muddled, and during the opening measures it felt as if he was struggling to rein in the notes rather than send celebratory showers of them shooting through the air like pyrotechnics. On the other hand, Mr Lubimov’s performance of Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie was one of the most impressive I’ve witnessed. Despite the watery nature of the piece, this time Mr Lubimov did not let any of these notes bleed into inaccuracy, instead rendering a powerful yet sensuous experience. The other three selections from Debussy’s Préludes, Book 1 were just as assured and evocative. Despite his unassuming, occasionally restrained presence at the keyboard, Mr Lubimov managed to stir whirls and whorls of color and texture into the air.

The Préludes, Book 2 were less consistent, though the delicate dancing undercurrents of La puerta del vino made up for the uncertainty of Feux d’artifice. During L’isle joyeuse, the most substantial of the Debussy pieces, Mr Lubimov conjured glorious, exotic images while maneuvering through rushes of emotion and mood changes with ease. He seemed to delight in the more laid-back atmosphere of the late-night concert, offering another Debussy prélude and two separate Mozart sonata movements as encores. But nothing could top the final work on the printed program, Satie’s Gnossienne no. 5, which was delivered with a limping sardonicism. The lighthearted yet somehow pensive melodies were accompanied by a half-smile playing across Mr Lubimov’s face.