Fort Worth — On Saturday afternoon, the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth presented a concert of music by two of the giants of the 20th Century, both Russians and contemporaries: Sergei Prokofiev and younger Dmitri Shostakovich. The concert, held at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, also featured three Russian-trained artists.
It is often said that artists of the same nationality as the composer can bring some shared affinity to the music. If it was ever true, it is certainly less true in recent times as international travel and worldwide communications meld the regional voices of composers into a more international language. However, Saturday’s performance ably demonstrated that there is something about the training at Russian conservatories that brings special understanding to the musical voice of similarly schooled composers.
Violinist and CMSFW Musical Director Gary Levinson was born in St. Petersburg and was admitted to the Leningrad Special Music School at the age of 5. He finished his training at the Juilliard School in New York City. Currently, as we all know in the Metroplex, he is the Senior Associate Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony. Pianist Sergei Babayan was born in Guimri, Armenia, studied at the Moscow Conservatory, and now teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Cellist Suren Bagratuni was born in Yerevan, Armenia, and also got his early training at the Moscow and finished at the New England Conservatory of Music.
This affinity to each other and the composer was noticeable right from the start with a highly personal reading of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor.
This is an early work, dating just before the composer ran afoul of the hammer of Stalin’s disapproval. If the composer had stayed with the harmonic language of this sonata, rather than incorporating more modernist sounds, Stalin would not have come down so hard on his bourgeois and decadent wanderings. But his subsequent music would have been completely different.
Bagratuni’s hushed playing of the broad first theme was punctuated by Babayan’s vacant piano accompaniment. The second movement was the rough and tumble style, with lots of repeated notes and non-stop action, that we associate with the composer’s later works. Babayan’s steely fingers captured the style perfectly. The harmonic glissandi on the cello were reminiscent of a similar effect that Stravinsky used some 24 years earlier in his ballet The Firebird.
The mournful second movement reflects the emotional turmoil of the composer’s life at the time, when he was temporarily separated from his wife to take up with a young student. This desolate style was to become one of the hallmarks of Shostakovich’s most powerful compositions in the future: retrospective, unsettled and harmonically restless. Although the ending felt too slow, this movement was one of the highlights of Saturday’s performance.
The last movement, a boisterous rondo, also foreshadowed the composer’s future sarcastic voice and his love of imitating circus music. Babayan dispatched a challenging passage in octaves with impressive flair.
Levinson joined Babayan for a particularly striking performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata in D Major, Op. 94a. The composer originally wrote this for flute and transcribed it for violin, at the request of violinist David Oistrakh, one year after its premiere in 1943. Many fans of this exquisite piece divide on either the flute or violin side, but no one listening to Levinson’s vivid performance, especially his use of the bow to create different colors that the flute dose more intrinsically with the breath, could doubt Oistrakh’s wisdom in asking for the transcription.
Right from the start, Levinson impressed with his slightly different readings of the repeated exposition, which are all too often played exactly the same. This is a piece full of contrasts and both artists gave each phrase its proper mood, even when it changed abruptly, as Prokofiev is wont to do. This is because both pianist and violinist played the pieces instinctively rather than calculated although the dazzling dispatch of the virtuosity the piece requires displayed years of study.
The concert ended with Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67, featuring all three artists. It was written 10 years after the cello sonata that opened the program.
In the meanwhile, the composer went through some turmoil. He was banished from concert halls for his so-called decadent Western dalliance with modernism but was rejuvenated by an embarrassing “apology” to Stalin and the success of his fifth symphony in 1937. Then came the war, which we barely survived. He would continue to be criticized and along with many other Russian assists, received a second denunciation in 1948. But the year the sonata was written (1944), although it was between denunciations, was marred by the death of his good friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, to whom the work is dedicated.
Although the sonata doesn’t open with great flights of virtuosity, it is extremely difficult for the cellist to play in that it is all in notoriously tricky-to-play artificial harmonics. Bagratuni’s performance was quite remarkable. This ghostly effect sometimes put the cello higher than the violin part. The second movement offered both artists some bravura playing but the third movement returned us to the somber world of departed friends.
Levinson announced that the performance of this movement would be dedicated to memory of Kevin Pytcher, who died just a few days before at the too-young age of 55. He was the production manager and occasional announcer for Dallas’ classical music station WRR/100.3 FM.
The last movement returned to Shostakovich’s love of the grotesque. The three artists gave it a superb performance, but could have had some more fun with the composer’s twists and turns. The movement runs out of steam, rather than ends, and finally drifts off into nothingness. The players held that silence for what seemed like an incredibly long time, allowing us to reflect on what we had just heard.