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Russian Repercussions

A. Borodin, A. Glazunov, N. Rinsky-Korsakov: “Les Vendredis” String Quartets, Excerpts
A. Glazunov: Elegy for Piano and Cello, OP 17
D. Shostakovitch: Piano Quintet in C Minor, OP 57

Le Salon de Musiques, April 8th, Dorothy Chandler Pavillon —                                     

News cycles at the moment are rife with tales of Russian influence, wealthy oligarchs and behind-the-scene businessmen with lavish country dachas. On April 8th, Le Salon de Musiques presented a concert whose background, although of similar themes, dealt with the world of classical music (circa 1890-1943)  rather than the current international atmosphere of political intrigue. 

Entitled Russian Legends, the concert introduced us to Mitrofan Belyayev (1836-1903), the son of a millionaire lumber baron and land owner. Although he ran his father’s business empire for decades, Belyayev was primarily interested in music. He played several instruments, spent time and money promoting young Russian composers and in 1884 founded the annual “Glinka Prize”, whose recipients included Balakirev and Tchaikovsky. He and the composers around him, both young and old, would come to be known as “the Belyayev Circle”.

International copyright laws did not extend to Russia at that time so Belyayev created a music publishing firm in Germany in 1885.  For his countrymen, this provided generous performance fees as well as legal assistance and control of their own work. Belyayev eventually published more than 2,000 compositions and became known around the world as a promoter of Russian music. In the same year, he began to produce concerts in St. Petersburg featuring such luminaries as Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Glazunov.

Extremely rich by 1891, Belyayev commissioned new string quartets from his friends and hosted extravagant soirees at his luxurious mansion.  Those events were a model for Le Salon de Musiques whose founder, Francois Chouchon, produces nine chamber music concerts per year. Each one is followed by High Tea, Champagne and conversations with the musicians. Belyayev presided over huge, rollicking parties every week known as Les Vendredis (Fridays), which is also the title of the unusual collection that began Le Salon’s “Russian Legends” concert this month.

The program notes were a bit perplexing but we apparently heard nine, brief movements excerpted from sixteen string quartets comprising two suites of music entitled “Les Vendredis, # 1 and #2.  Adding to the confusion, one of the segments, also called Les Vendredis, is a polka attributed to three composers: Sokolov, Glazunov and Lyadov. In her introductory comments, musicologist Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano earned  the audience’s sympathy as she tried to clarify everything,  and some laughs as she did her best to pronounce the names of the work’s several  composers, Blumenfeld, d’Osten-Sacken and Artcibuschev.  (The latter’s name is spelled at least six different ways in his Wikipedia listing. No matter the spelling, he spent a lifetime working for his friend Belyayev, heading the Paris office of the publishing house from 1920 until his death in 1937.)              

The multi-movement piece was performed by four award-winning musicians: violinists, Jessica Guideri and Serena McKinney, violist Brian Chen, and cellist Coleman Itzkoff.  All of them have excelled in previous Le Salon concerts and their simpatico suggests they perform together exclusively. But their individual credits illustrate that each one has a celebrated, very busy career in a variety of settings.

Overall, the music of Les Vendredis was delightful and considerably shorter than the program suggested. Notable highlights include Chen’s long-held, bowed note in the Glazunov  Prelude and Fugue;  Guideri  and McKinney’s  treatment of Borodin’s  sweet “Scherzo” movement;  and Itzakoff and Chen’s synthesis of strings  in Lyadov’s “Sarabande”. The upbeat finale was the afore-mentioned “Polka”, this one by Kopylov, and it transported this listener back in time to those Friday nights when Mitrofan Belyayev enjoyed food and drink and playing quartets with his Russian friends

Next up was a piece by one of Russian music’s more interesting characters , Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936).  Perhaps best known today for his ballet score “Raymonda”, he was hailed as a boy genius by no less than Rimsky-Korsakov. Belyayev was so impressed by the teenaged Glazunov that he took him to Europe and arranged for the premiere of his first symphony.  Although a considerable composer and a professor for three decades at St. Petersburg’s Conservatory, Glazunov let the quality of his work diminish.  He conducted the disastrous 1897 premiere of Rachmaninoff’s first symphony but ruined the occasion because he was drunk. He spent the last years of his life in Paris and was ultimately dismissed by former students Prokofiev and Shostakovich as “passe”. 

Glazunov met Franz Liszt on his trip to the continent and, when the great composer died soon after, wrote his Elegy for Cello and Piano as a memorial. Pianist David Kaplan joined with Coleman Itzkoff on cello for a transcendent reading of this haunting piece. Glazunov was about ten years older than Rachmaninoff and an early hint of their similar styles is discernible. During its quarter-hour length, Kaplan drew on his considerable piano strengths when needed and his unselfish support of Itzkoff was especially gracious. While both instruments shared the written notes, the nearly human sound of mourning in Itzkoff’s cello-playing was sublime.

The next selection played was not the next selection per advertisement. Those of us who arrived after Dr. Brown-Montesano began her pre-concert comments did not learn this and were, once again, perplexed. (Important astrology note:  April 8 was dead center in a Mercury Retrograde cycle during which misunderstandings and confusion are commonplace.) The program announced a Sonata for Violin and Piano by Eduard Naprovnik  (1839-1916). Much of his lengthy career in Russia was spent conducting well-known operas, several by his friend Tchaikovsky; perhaps that’s why this little-known sonata was scheduled. McKinney returned with her violin and Kaplan followed to the piano. The first movement definitely sounded Russian although ahead of its time, not like late 19th century. In the second movement, the music was considerably brighter and somehow familiar. McKinney’s violin strings got a real workout and she received a solid assist from Kaplan at the keyboard. But in a lifetime of listening to classical music, how was it possible I had never heard of this Naprovnik fellow before?

A stranger sitting to  my left, who had also arrived  late, clearly had the same confused countenance as I did. We were both double-checking our programs and looking around the room but our fellow patrons were all enjoying themselves and the music. When the next movement began, the stranger and I simultaneously mouthed the words “Romeo and Juliet”.  And by the start of the finale, the resemblance to “Peter and the Wolf” was too obvious to ignore.  It was finally clear that we had actually been listening to the Sonata for Violin and Piano, #2 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)  and not the similarly-named sonata by Naprovnik.

There is an interesting background to the Prokofiev piece. Legendary violinist David Oistrakh was Prokofiev’s neighbor in Moscow and loved his friend’s difficult 1942 Flute Sonata.  He asked him if he would transcribe it for violin and piano and Prokofiev did so a year later.  McKinney showed, once again, how accomplished she is as she tackled the torrential rain of Prokoviev notes that were probably easier to play on flute than on a violin. Kaplan handled the brisk, modern chords and piano runs with nimble finesse.  This is late, difficult Prokofiev music and the two professionals played the dramatic score brilliantly.

The final work of the concert was the Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op, 57  by the prolific Dmitri Shostakovitch (1906-1975), perhaps the last in the long, grand line of Russia’s monumental composers and certainly the one on whom the Iron Curtain fell the hardest.  Shostakovitch was a brilliant conservatory student at Leningrad and wrote a well-received first symphony at only 19.  His work touched on Russian folk music but was more at home in the kind of dark, sardonic, massive themes heard in Mahler and Hindemith.  From an early age, he suffered harsh, official reproach in Pravda, the state press, and he lived a nervous, agitated life under a cloud of doom.  (The 1937 score of his brilliant Fifth Symphony actually carried the subtitle “an artist’s reply to just criticism”.)

This quintet comes from a time in Shostakovitch’s life filled with what  Le Salon’s program  notes call “introverted melancholy”  and that undercurrent was always apparent. There were dirge-like traces of the Fifth Symphony in this 1940 work featuring roller-coaster ups-and-downs and effective plucked strings. The fugue, a musical form the composer excelled in writing, was stunning. Later, there were ominous piano “footsteps” that could nicely function in a Film Noir score.  There is a deep sadness throughout that is truly heartbreaking, unmistakably the work of Shostakovitch.  But the final movement lifted the mood and, with the swirling violins recalling country dances, the piece ended on a quiet, elegant note.


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