The [email protected] Focus series launched a most successful concert of Russian music – that of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky – Saturday, November 8, graced by the presence of a host of gifted musicians, perhaps first among them pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of the internationally distinguished author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Under the rubric “Art Under a Tombstone,” the concert, accompanied by a lecture the night preceding, meant to revive the Russian sense of spiritual authenticity after years of political and cultural repression by the Soviet regime. The program, held at St. Bede’s Episcopal Church, Menlo Park, proffered a wonderfully vibrant Hamburg Steinway for the two featured pianists, Solzhenitsyn and Gloria Chien, to ply their extraordinary gifts. And despite a somewhat dry acoustic in the hall, each of the three works on the program – the Shostakovich Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 8; the Shostakovich Seven Romances on Poems by Aleksander Blok, Op. 127; and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50 – achieved a pungent and lyrical illumination that took the modest but thoroughly enthralled audience by storm.
The 1923 Piano Trio No. 1 by Shostakovich, originally a work of a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, intended to be a love-letter to Tatiana Glivenko. The one-movement work – performed by Solzhenitsyn, violinist Soovin Kim, and cellist David Finckel – began with three, descending, chromatic cello notes (in 6/4) that permeate the entire composition in various guises. The fertile Andante section soon emerges as a lovely, singing melody in E-flat Major that had Solzhenitsyn’s effecting large, ethereal chords in the keyboard. Most mercurial, the work vacillated between ardent, romantic impulses and that sarcastic parody of emotion which became the composer’s oft-noted trademark. The ardor and intensity of both Kim’s and Finckel’s respective string tone galvanized the ensemble, whether in declamatory or scherzando affections. The edgy, occasionally jarring sonorities would eventually resolve into a series of triumphant, audacious piano chords – Prestissimo fantastico – that announce a potent, original spirit in the new Soviet regime, though this music would remain repressed until after the composer’s death, when its final bars were to be supplied in 1981 by Boris Tischenko
The Seven Romances on Poems by Alekander Blok for Soprano, Piano, Violin, and Cello (1967) bear a dedication to the esteemed wife of Mstislav Rostropovich, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, though the inspirators included cellist Rostropovich and violinist David Oistrakh. Shostakovich had suffered a heart attack, but he found the strength and determination to perform the work himself, having set to music verses by Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921), a poet who had great sympathy for the Russian Revolution. But the verses Shostakovich chooses are Blok’s early love poetry, tinged with mysticism and tragic doom, uttered in a style that ranges from subdued, private intimacy to surreal shrieks of the Apocalypse. Soprano Hyunah Yu joined Solzhenitsyn, Finckel, and Kim in this alternately surreal and expressionistic suite, whose emotional influences appear to rely on Mussorgsky and Mahler, particularly the latter’s third song from Songs of a Wayfarer and the Songs of Children’s Deaths. Each of the seven songs featured a different sonority and instrumentation, with only the final song “Music,” employing the full quartet of participants. “Ophelia’s Song,” opening the set, demonstrated soprano Yu’s piercing head tone, accompanied by Finckel’s moribund cello line. Ophelia, abandoned by Hamlet, feels an imminent fatality. Solzhenitsyn assisted in the second song, The Prophet Bird, a portrait of a blood-faced harbinger of doom.
Violin Kim led a solo for “We were together,” which literally portrays a romance that dissipates into mere parcels of the melodic line. Piano and cello combined in gauzy harmony for the central piece, The City Sleeps, in which Finckel double-stopped his part, espressivo. The last three songs, played attacca, portray a Tempest, Secret Signs, and the aforementioned Music. Tempest” projected an explosive character for voice, piano and violin, with Kim’s ponticello explicit in its terms of a personal, mortal storm. The virtual, Dantesque vision increased in Secret Signs, the cello’s muted pedal and Yu’s whispered despair invoking a “black dream in my bleak heart.” Finally, Shostakovich, like Schubert, attempts to find metaphysical solace in Music, but only the three instruments make the final word in a postlude or epilogue comment on an uneasy sense of pantheistic consolation.
The most “symphonic” moment of the evening arrived in the form of Peter Tchaikovsky’s 1882 Piano Trio in A Minor, an extended musical homage to pedagogue Nikolay Rubinstein, who had died in 1881. For this impassioned rendition we had the pleasure of pianist Gloria Chien’s keyboard contribution in collaboration with Kim and Finckel. In two sweeping movements, Pezzo elegiaco and Tema con variazioni, Tchaikovsky characterizes – in Schumann’s sense of the term – “the memory of a great artist,” Rubinstein himself. Cello, violin, and piano successively enter with the main theme of the Elegiac Piece, a grievous lament that thrusts the opening figures into a grand sonata-form based on two themes, always centered on the piano’s gravitas. Between dolor and sweet remembrance, the movement moved ineluctably forward, each phrase answered with dramatic flair by the instrumentalists, whose innate sense of musical unanimity never faltered. At key climactic moments, the emotional atmosphere resonated with elements from the composer’s Piano Concerto in G Major, Op. 44. The second part of the Trio programmatically depicts a day in the country, a picnic event of 1873 shared by Rubinstein and Moscow Conservatory faculty. A rustic tune and eleven variations comprise the movement’s own first half, with the final variant and coda’s having their own, massive – even heroic – character in sonata-form. That this reading had a robust, vigorous, virile energy devolves to mere understatement, given the seamless spontaneity of their passionate ensemble. When the original, Elegy impulse returned, lugubrious, weeping, having achieved the monumental closure Tchaikovsky intended, we at St. Bede’s hall well knew we had shared a colossal musical experience.