From Russia, With Love

The [email protected] Festival staged a diversely colorful, eminently successful concert Saturday, July 21 as part of the “Creative Capitals” rubric for the summer season.  The concert at The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton focused on St. Petersburg, which Peter the Great (1703) meant to serve as a “Western” mecca of artistic culture, and which composer-virtuoso Anton Rubinstein guaranteed with his having established the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music in 1862. 

The “father” of Russian classical music gave first voice to this evening, Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) having composed his Trio Pathétique in A Minor in 1832, for Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano. Glinka absorbed the Italian, lyric tradition into his own, idiosyncratic treatment of Russian folk-music materials. Despite its sentimental designation “Pathétique,” the relatively optimistic character of the piece suited our principals – Jose Franch-Ballester, clarinet; Peter Kolkay, bassoon; Michael Brown, piano – splendidly, especially since Glinka exploits the bel canto aspects of the two wind instruments with deft strokes.  It seems that at the time of composition, Glinka suffered health issues and the debilitating effects of an unhappy love affair, and the occasionally torrid lyricism of the writing reflects his personal anguish. Each of the three movements seamlessly proceeded, attacca, into each other, with pianist Brown’s often brilliant filigree – much in the Weber or Mendelssohn style –  threatening to overwhelm the winds.  By keeping the Steinway lid down, such sonic competition could be avoided. Nevertheless, the ensemble colored this unusual mix of instruments with brio and crisp, ardent articulation, a real aperitif to a stunning feast of Russian modes.

Anton Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 35 (1894) ensued, with its own demand for unique scoring: Arnaud Sussmann, violin; Paul Neubauer, viola; and David Requiro and David Finckel, cellos. The second cello, as it functions in the Schubert C Major Quintet, adds a decided weight to the color of the ensemble. Our familiarity with one aspect of this piece – its second movement Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky – lies in the Op. 35a orchestral treatment of the material. Arensky’s Quartet combines elements of Russian folk song with the Russian doxology and liturgical impulses. When Tchaikovsky died in 1893, Arensky felt the need to celebrate this master, particularly in the often parlando nature of the musical line, as if the instruments were themselves intoning a spoken prayer for the departed. Arnaud Sussmann’s violin often sang in high relief over the other instruments, his ariosi and double-stops ringing with pungent fervor. Arensky took a lied of Tchaikovsky’s, “Legend,” from Op. 54, as his foundation theme for the seven, deft variations of movement two. The shifting harmonies and piquant colors – such as high harmonics and pizzicati – never ceased to beguile the ear, even as the ground-theme made itself felt in clever permutations. Arensky, like his model Tchaikovsky, then “legitimizes” his composition in the Western tradition, subjecting his Russian Orthodox chant of movement three to a powerful fugue, one that lets a theme emerge that both Beethoven (in Razumovsky Quartet No. 2) and Mussorgsky (in Boris Gudonov) of having enriched their oeuvre. Thus, the first half of the concert ended on a note of heroic valediction, as tone that would recur in the concluding song-cycle of Dmitry Shostakovich.

Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) established the distinctly “Russian” or even “Eastern” character of his native music through his founding of “The Mighty Five” group of composers that includes Borodin, Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, himself. The one-movement Balakirev Octet we heard at Menlo, for Winds, Piano and Strings, Op. 3 (1856) enjoyed a “symphonic” sonority, especially with the high gloss of flute Demarre McGill and the smooth oboe of Stephen Taylor. Once again, Michael Brown did the keyboard honors in fioritura that resembled much in Chopin and Mendelssohn, while the French horn (Kevin Rivard) and cello (David Requiro) made their point in tunes highly colored by Russian folk elements. Much of the dominant rhythmic impulse reminded me specifically of the opening of Mozart’s G Minor Piano Quartet, K. 478. Balakirev delights in short, melodic kernels, many of which can erupt from intimate colloquies into heroic song. In traditional sonata-form, the movement – likely to have been part of an expansive, complete work – left a sumptuous impression of a talent insufficiently nurtured in the composer’s output.

Viola player Paul Neubauer and pianist Wu Han then made West-Coast history in their debut of the Shostakovich Impromptu for Viola and Piano, Op. 33 (1931). Of only two minutes’ duration, the slight piece in gypsy style – a slow lassu section followed by a lively friss – had been considered lost, but was rediscovered in 2017 in the Moscow State Archives among the papers of viola player Vadim Borisovsky of the Beethoven String Quartet. The slow section might have been attributable to Ernest Bloch, but the frisky part was pure zigeuner fire.

The brief Impromptu stood in telling contrast to the final presentation of From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79 (1948) by Shostakovich, a powerful momento mori for the victims of the Holocaust while itself suggesting Soviet Russia’s own complicity in racial genocide. For the performance of this emotionally grueling work, we had four thoroughly prepared principals: Lyubov Petrova, soprano; Sara Couden, alto; Kang Wang, tenor; and Gilbert Kalish, piano. The themes of injustice and oppression long infiltrate the Shostakovich musical ethos; and these songs, compiled in 1947, tend to darken any regime that commits the “original sin” of destroying a child’s innocence. The tragic tone of the eleven songs aligns the cycle with Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. The first song, “Lament for a Dead Child,” let soprano Lyubov Petrova display a huge, gorgeous vocal instrument, whose high notes and sustained chest-tone simply filled the hall.  Alto Sara Couden and tenor Kang Wang proved no less sonorous, each adding either a solo incantation or a duet, as required, to realize the powerful, histrionic character of the songs. Gilbert Kalish supplied the sensitive piano colors, often a depiction of a fog, or miasma, a frozen wasteland, a goat’s rummaging for food – an obvious allegory of famine, real and political – or the howling wind, especially that of human callousness. The grim beauty of both the work and its glowing, resonant interpretation gave us due pause – and applause – whether to recognize the musicians or weep for the state of our world. 


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