Russian pianist and composer Lera Auerbach does not look like your average pianist/composer. She looks a little more like an actress or model, and Americans might note that she looks a bit like British actress Olivia d'Abo, who plays Nicole Wallace, Vincent D'Onofrio's notorious nemesis on the popular detective show Law and Order: Criminal Intent. However, acting is not Auerbach's sideline; it's poetry, and she has five collections of poems to credit, plus publication of more than 100 single items in various Russian poetry journals. Most of us in the West can't make heads or tails of the Russian language, therefore Auerbach's music must speak to us on her behalf. The 37 pieces found on Bis' Lera Auerbach plays her Preludes and Dreams are like pianistic poems; while a few top the three-minute mark, most of these pieces range between 3 minutes and 30 seconds. The movements are subdivided into three sets, 24 Preludes for Piano, Op. 41, Ten Dreams, Op. 45, and Chorale, Fugue and Postlude, Op. 31, but at first the listener may experience them as if all were part of the same work, or at least the same "album" -- that taken in a popular sense, rather than in a typical classical album where the disc is made up of movements belonging to works obviously different from one another. Lera Auerbach plays her Preludes and Dreams has a sense of continuity that makes it feel as though all of it is of a piece.
Auerbach is an excellent pianist, and yet not one who composes to amaze us with her dexterity. Many of her pieces are spacious, understated, and strongly reliant on distantly struck notes and the sound of chords dying away for their effect. Not even one of her pieces is truly abstract or seemingly derived from some kind of procedure; Auerbach composes by impulse and her development schemes are instinctual. At times her influences are apparent -- one hears an occasional allusion to Mussorgsky and more often to the music of Prokofiev. The fifth "dream" Tempo di Marcia features a twisted-up fragment of what seems to be a quote from Kurt Weill's Kanonensong disintegrating into the coal dust of a ground-up remnant from the "Fate" motif of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in C minor. Such direct quotations are relatively rare in Auerbach's music; however, she does work from direct impressions and personal experience and that is what goes into her music. Auerbach isn't trying to do a backflip in order to please an audience, either; some of her harmonic gestures are stern, tough, and even angry sounding. Nevertheless, her music is the result of a distinct and well-studied personality, a fact that is already well known to many top-flight performers and groups who have commissioned Auerbach for works and to Sikorski, the music publisher to whom Auerbach is its youngest composer.
Lera Auerbach plays her Preludes and Dreams shakes up the expectations commonly accorded to classical music in a variety of ways. Many pro-European musical pundits may insist that the classical tradition cannot move forward without the use of the "dreaded systems" developed early in the twentieth century and done to death by mid-century. However, Auerbach is European, isn't using the dreaded systems, and seems to be moving forward as well as anyone. Other more technologically inclined music mavens insist that the entire future of music is bound up in digital technology, and yet the only digital technology Auerbach is using here is her fingers. Auerbach, utilizing a traditional instrument and clearly recognizable musical materials, is making music that sounds fresh, mysterious, contemporary, atmospheric, and personal. Perhaps if we stopped worrying so hard about what the next big thing was going to be, we might take notice of artists like Auerbach, who is offering something right now in terms of classical music that is hip, relevant, provocative, and thoroughly enjoyable.