[email protected] – Stent Hall
Alternating the two halves of their Saturday, August 6 concert – with paired, intimate collaborations and one large ensemble piece consisting of the Tchaikovsky sextet Souvenir of Florence – the [email protected] series came to resounding, triumphant conclusion at The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atheton for the summer 2016 season. The rubric “Souvenirs” meant to assemble – with all due homage to Marcel Proust – the remembrance of lost time and things past, an essential characteristic of the Russian music the Menlo Festival championed. One American composer, Samuel Barber, shared the evening’s program with two formidable Russian voices, those of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich.
The multi-colored program opened with six selections from Samuel Barber’s 1952 set of Souvenirs for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 28, here performed by Wu Han and Wu Qian. Barber composed Souvenirs, a suite containing a Waltz, Schottische, Pas de deux, Two-step, Hesitation tango, and Galop. “Think of that coming out of your serious minded West Chester Presbyterian nephew,” Barber wrote to Sidney Homer. Conceived as a ballet scenario, the music celebrates a New York City sensibility in the form of a divertissement, with several harmonically daring moves that do not ruffle its cosmopolitan feathers. Gershwin makes a passing bow, but so do Poulenc and Fauré in the course of the suite. While the Pas de deux waxed romantic in dark hues, the Two-Step might have invoked the figures of either Gene Kelly or George Raft in pursuit of Vera Ellen or Carole Lombard. From the opening Waltz to the concluding Galop, we could enjoy the glitz and glitter of the Palm Court, 1914, touched with Gallic or Iberian influences, savvy and beautifully choreographed by our two principals at the keyboard.
Tchaikovsky seems to have anticipated “souvenirs” as a particular mode of expression. His first offering this evening, Souvenir d’un lieu cher for Violin and Piano (1878), a direct tribute in three movements to the Brailov estate of his patroness Nadezhda von Meck. Violinist Kyoko Takezawa made her first of two appearances, here accompanied by pianist Wu Qian. While Takezawa’s violin tone could be nasal at times, her capacity for heartfelt passion remained unbridled throughout her given repertroire. The D Minor Meditation – the first and most potent of the three movements – had been intended for the Violin Concerto. Takezawa’s playing was full of expressive gestures — she often arched and dipped and raised, her violin to something like a 30-degree angle above her left shoulder. The music seemed to carry over the seductive melancholy from Lenski’s aria in Evgeny Onegin, rife with mortal thoughts. An elfin Scherzo ensued, much in the Mendelssohn spirit, Presto giocoso, abundant with color and technical virtuosity. The final Melodie – a frequent encore played by the late Nathan Milstein – wove a magical carpet of lyric song, touched by Russian, bucolic intimacy.
The first half of the evening ended with the set of Six Spanish Songs, Op. 100 (1956) by Dmitry Shostakovich, delivered in fine voice by baritone Nikolay Borchev, accompanied by pianist Hyeyeon Park. Quite an intriguing moment in music, these songs by Shostakovich, whose gloomy irony often veils his capacity for ardent sincerity! Even in the midst of rhythms and colors that invoke Falla and Granados, a Russian sensibility creeps in, namely redolent of Mussorgsky. In “The Black-Eyed Maiden” — Borchev’s potent dramatic sense and natural lyric gave to Shostakovich a decided scent of Schubert. Borchev’s capacity for sustained melismas grabbed us immediately in “Farewell, Granada!” a sentiment Borchev should have shared with Fritz Wunderlich two generations ago. The slightly picaresque lyric “Little Stars” quite captivated the audience, with its suggestive trade-off, songs for embraces. The last song, “The Dream,” conveyed a romantic barcarolle, the lover’s fragile fishing boat having been beset by the stormy waves of love
Tchaikovsky’s 1892 string sextet Souvenir de Florence in D Minor, Op. 70 may be the last happy work he composed. Despite its key signature, the music throbs with vitality and confidence, “Italian” in the sense of sustained, singing lines. A marvelous ensemble realized the composer’s intentions – Kyoko Takezawa and Alexander Sitkovetsky, violins; Paul Neubauer and Matthew LIpman, violas; and Nicholas Canellakis and Keith Robinson, cellos — with Ms. Takezawa playing the all-important violin concertante part. The opening Allegro con spirito should more properly have been marked “con fuoco,” since every phrase blazed with sweeping passion and lyrical grandeur. Often, the first violin would engage in wistful dialogue with each of the two violas, Neubauer and Lipman. Even more potent came utterances from the cellist Canellakis, whose own tone matched the burnished color of Neubauer’s now 400-year-old Amati instrument.
Tchaikovsky’s gifts for combining violin and cello harmony took us back to his Swan Lake and to the second movement of his G Major Piano Concerto. In the course of the two interior movements – Adagio cantabile con moto and Allegretto moderato – we could discern beneficent smiles attending the six principals, as we basked in their shared sonorities. After the first movement, it became thrillingly clear that Florence had ceded to Moscow for poetic inspiration, and the Russian temper shone incandescent. Folk tunes, gypsy colors, and “symphonic” gestures conspired to wax “German,” as Tchaikovsky yielded to his fugato, contrapuntal temptations. But any sense of the “academic” melted away in the liquid fire these fine artists imbued into this performance, leaving the audience breathless and eager for more music from Menlo.