We Americans know so little about Russsia, from its vast, sprawling topography to its rich, complex literary and musical heritage. Fortunately, programming for this season’s La Jolla SummerFest aims to fill in some significant lacunas in our exposure to Russian music with three concerts devoted to the chamber music of Dmitri Shostakovich this weekend (August 21-23).
As a prelude to this Shostakovich intensive, Tuesday’s (August 18) SummerFest concert presented
a portrait of Russian music at the turn of the 20th century with works by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Sergei Taneyev. Soprano Lyubov Petrova opened the concert with five Rachmaninoff songs, and her resplendent voice combined with her unusually sensitive interpretation of this repertory made me long for an entire program of Russian solo vocal music.
Four songs the composer wrote in 1916 based on texts by contemporary Russian symbolist poets struck me as emotionally vibrant, yet set in a spare musical style we don’t associate with this composer of those hyper-Romantic piano concertos. Rachmaninoff’s vocal lines sounded as compelling as any written by Richard Strauss in that period, but unencumbered by the lavish, busy piano accompaniments he wrote. Petrova’s gleaming yet fluid lyric soprano invested these songs, especially “The Dream,” with dramatic urgency and ardent allure. Pianist John Novacek provided poetic but rhythmically incisive accompaniments on the La Jolla Music Society’s stunning new Hamburg Steinwway concert grand.
An earlier Rachmaninoff song, “Oh, Never Sing to Me Again,” proved more conventional with its sinuous, floating melodies that suggested his famous “Vocalise,” and Petrova used her opulent vocal technique to its greatest advantage.
Taneyev’s fame is modest outside of Russia. Alhough he was Tchaikovsky’s best pupil, played the piano solos at the premieres of all of Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos, and took over his mentor’s teaching position at the Moscow Conservatory when he resigned to concentrate on composition, Taneyev’s list of compositions is short, and chamber music predominates.
His formidable 1911 Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 30, proved expansive and prone to grandiose climactic expressions. Sounding like he intended to conquer the world in his unrelenting 20-minute opening movement, he followed it with a flippant—but clever—Scherzo and a slow movement whose Bachian piano solo and descending passacaglia bass suggested a neo-Baroque longing his European counterparts would not discover for another decade.
Over the last several SummerFest seasons pianist Joyce Yang has demonstrated an astounding technique and rewarding insight into a broad range of repertory, so she was the obvious choice to make a persuasive case for this unknown chamber work. Complementing her pliant touch and knowing articulation were violinists Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Kerry McDermott, whose dark timbres expanded the somber thrust of this minor mode work.
Cellist John Sharp, a SummerFest newcomer from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, played his solos with authority and provided a well-focused sonority that securely grounded the ensemble. In the heroic final movement, each player, including violist Paul Neubauer, was given a glorious moment in the sun, and their final cadence arrived in Imperial splendor.
About the Borromeo String Quartet’s acount of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 11, I have no reservation. Their spirited unanimity, attention to detail and polish brought out its many virtues. But the composer’s modest thematic catalogue in this quartet needed the varied colors of a full orchestra to make me want to encounter them again.