The biblical maxim of saving the best for the last came to mind while experiencing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67, at La Jolla SummerFest on Sunday (August 23). The final chamber work of three consecutive days of Shostakovich at SummerFest electrified Sherwood Auditorium with white-hot virtuosity fueled by an inescapable conviction of the composer’s profoundest communication.
Completed in 1944 as the tide of World War II was turning towards victory for the Allies, this dark, probing piano trio neither exulted patriotism nor pined for victory, but rather agonized over the futility and destruction of war. For this failure to support the war effort, the piano trio was initially banned by the Soviet government.
From the austere fugue that opened the work to the macabre jollity of the slow movement’s passacaglia and the finale’s grotesque dance of death, Vladimir Feltsman at the piano and violinist Dimitry Sitkovetsky ensured an interpretation that was faithful to the weight of Russian history. American cellist John Sharp followed their lead, and this trio’s sharply focused ensemble proved nonpareil. Sitkovetsky’s steely, penetrating sonority was perfectly tailored for this intense work, and Feltsman’s blunt, edgy keyboard attacks grounded the work in its intended sense of terror.
Sunday’s concert opened with some later Shostakovich, the String Quartet No. 12 in D-flat Major, where the wily composer toyed with 12-tone rows without abandoning tonality, and it included his 1934 Cello Sonata in D Minor, an unusually sunny work written before his controversial opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District got him in deep trouble with Joseph Stalin.
Sharp and Feltsman paired amicably for the Cello Sonata, indulging its innocent humor and imbuing generously scaled themes (intended without any sense of irony) with touches of apt Brahmsian warmth. Although it would be easy to categorize the style of this sonata as neo-classical, perhaps a second cousin to his Piano Quintet, the sonata’s pensive Largo meandered into Twilight Zone territory, suggesting the ethos Bartók’s spooky night music.
The Borromeo String Quartet offered a different string quartet each day: Saturday featured the composer’s String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110, arguably his most frequently performed quartet—it is also played with some frequency in its expanded chamber orchestra version. On Sunday, we heard the String Quartet No. 12 in D-flat Major, Op. 133, a compact work whose dozen short, contrasting movements quickly shifted tempo and mood.
In contrast to Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies, which catalogue the most public part of the composer’s personality and portray his wish to be seen as Gustav Mahler’s successor in that progression of symphonic cycles that started with Haydn, his 15 string quartets show us the intimate Shostakovich, the composer who believed his style needed no comparison for its justification. Borromeo gave us muscular, yet sumptuously detailed accounts of the intimate Shostakovich.
I confess that I was unaware of song cycles by Shostakovich, so his cycle “Seven Verses of Alexander Blok,” Op. 127, sung by soprano Lyubov Petrova, came as a revelation. Although the seven poems do not form a coherent story, they offer a variety of themes that invite musical depiction: love, separation, the strength of nature, the power of music, and intimacy, all of which Shostakovich set with a strong dramatic sense and compelling emotional edge.
As Petrova’s stirring Rachmaninoff songs clearly revealed in one of last week’s SummerFest
concerts, this soprano’s striking voice and wide dramatic capabilities immediately transport the listener, even though Shostakovich’s vocal idiom does not always immediately charm the ear. He wrote this cycle for the celebrated operatic soprano Galina Vishnevskaya with a cello accompaniment for her husband Mistislav Rostropovich. Some of the songs also included violin and piano. SummerFest instrumentalists Sitkovetsky and Feltsman served faithfully at violin and piano, and cellist Clive Greensmith took on the Rostropovich role.
This is just the type of song cycle that a festival, with its cadre of ready instrumentalists, should present, for it would certainly stretch the budget of the typical solo vocal recital. Although I would jump at the chance to hear this song cycle again, for that reason I don’t imagine encountering it any time soon.
With pianist John Novacek, violinst Sitkovetsky gave a complete and masterful account of the
Violin Sonata, Op. 134, (written for David Oistrakh) on Saturday. Of all the Shostakovich works performed over these three concerts, the idiom of this Violin Sonata proved the most challenging to take in with equanimity, although the performers’ remarkable prowess was beyond cavil.
The earliest Shostakovich offering we heard was the Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 8, a work the 17-year-old completed while still a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Conventionally tonal and spaciously laid out in a single movement, violinist David Chan, cellist Clive Greensmith and pianist Alan Woo opened the Saturday concert with this charming appetizer.
Each year, SummerFest focuses on a single composer for three of the 15 or so concerts that are presented. Typically, the choice has been Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn–well-loved composers from remote musical periods. Choosing Shostakovich was a bold choice, but one that resonated with the Sherwood audiences. Even in the most demanding works, they responded with alacrity to the conviction and outstanding level of performance by the artists. Which composer might be the next choice? Prokofiev? Bartók? Britten? Chavez? Ligeti?