Support independent arts journalism by joining our Patreon! Currently $5/month.

About Superconductor

Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Concert Review: The Answers Lie Within

The Chamber Music Society kicks off its Russian Panorama festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Like these Matroyshka dolls, Russian musical tradition has a complicated history.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is on a mission this month: to explore the vast and mostly ignored field of Russian music beyond the "big names." True, the chamber works of Tchaikovsky and the quartets of Shostakovich are repertory staples, but Sunday's concert at Alice Tully Hall was dedicated (with one notable exception) to composers whose catalogues are new to Western ears.

The tradition of so-called Western style classical music was first brought to the Imperial court by the tsars. However,it wasn't until the 19th century that the first important Russian composer emerged. This was Mikhail Glinka, who absorbed the influence of bel canto composers and wrote the first two important Russian operas. Glinka's Trio pathetique for bassoon, clarinet and piano is workmanlike, but there is no denying the raw creativity at play in this piece. The interpretation, by Marc Goldberg, David Shifrin and Michael Brown had a lyric quality and warm energy, with the musicians reveling in the unusual combination of forces.

Next came a short work by Alexander Glazunov, an Idyll for horn and string quartet from 1887. A contemporary of Tchaikovsky, Glazunov is an important symphonist whose work has somehow fallen to the side of the standard repertory. His symphonies have been recorded but his chamber music remains virtually unknown. An assembly of string players Fancisco Fullama and Sean Lee, violins; Mark Hollowat, viola and cellist Inbal Segev) were joined by horn virtuoso David Jolley for this piece. This proved to be a gentle pastorale where the soloist engaged in call-and-response with the strings.

If Glinka sparked the fires of Russian music, it was the mostly forgotten Mily Balakirev who fanned them into a full blaze. Balakirev is famous for two things: writing the impossible-to-play piano showpiece Islamey and founding the "Mighty Handful," also known as the "Five." These composers (Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimksy-Korsakov) all had two things in common. None made composition their primary means of support, and all were committed to Balakirev's ideal of translating the long Russian tradition of folk music to the concert and operatic stage.

Balakirev's Octet was next, or part of it anyway. Only the first movement survives from this massive piece. Although a fragment it remains Balakirev's only surviving excursion into the genre. It gets by on a cheeky kind of charm and a willingness to break musical rules. Some of the aforementioned musicians were joined by bassist Xavier Foley, flautist Ransom Wilson and James Austin Smith on the oboe for this raucous and at times lyrical movement. It showed great musical ambition on the part of its creator matched with the naïve desire to create without the help of a classical rulebook.

The second half of the afternoon concert was dedicated to works for piano written for multiple players. The timeline jumped all the way to 1979 for Alfred Schnittke's Homage to Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich for Piano Six Hands. Three stools were packed together to form a long players' bench, and Michael brown, Anne-Marie McDermott and Wu Qian each took an assigned register of the single keyboard. What followed was a friendly musical argument between a roaring bass theme (Prokofiev), a set of jarring, trip-hammer rhythms reminiscent of Stravinsky's ballets, and a trilling repetition of the "D-S-C-H" theme (D, E flat, C, B Natural) that was Shostakovich's musical signature. Intentionally, there was no resolution between these three geniuses, an ironic reflection of these mens' relationships in life.

Finally, Ms. McDermott and Ms Qian sat at opposing pianos for the last work of the evening, Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 2 for two pianos. This work comes from the dark period of self-doubt following the catastrophic failure of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1, a time when the composer turned to therapy and hypnosis for help getting back on track. The work proved just as ambitious as other Rachmaninoff compositions for his favorite instrument, peppered throughout with lovely lyric moments in the tradition of Glinka and rock-ribbed dances that reflected Balakirev. The Dies Irae, a Rachmaninoff thematic staple, opened the final movement in stunning fashion before the two pianists danced a manic Tarantella to a bravura close.

If you enjoyed this article, it's time to click over to Superconductor's Patreon page, and help support the cost of independent music journalism in New York City at the low cost of just $5/month.

Trending on Superconductor


Share My Blog!

Share |

Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats