Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Summer Music & Shostakovich

After everybody’s settled in to their summer routines – which for most of us means lack-of-routine – it’s time for Summer Music 2009, the annual summer series with Markets Square Concerts, three concerts that begin Wednesday July 22nd at Market Square Church and then continue Saturday evening at 8 and again Sunday afternoon at 4 at the Glen Allen Mill along the Yellow Breeches Creek. The Fry Street String Quartet returns along with pianist Stuart Malina, oboist Gerard Reuter and, for the “Trout” Quintet, bassist Donovan Stokes.

Wednesday evening’s concert begins at the unusual time (as far as concerts normally go) of 6:00 at Market Square Church – which means you can come in early, take in a great concert and then head out to Harrisburg’s Restaurant Row for some great food. And you get to hear the 5th of Beethoven’s first set of six string quartets on a program that includes a little known set of variations on a delicious Schubert song, “Heidenröslein” for oboe and piano by Leone Sinigaglia who studied with Dvořák and then came under the spell of Brahms in Vienna in the 1890s. Joined by Stuart Malina, oboist Gerard Reuter returns to Summer Music with this performance: he’d been here with his colleagues of the Dorian Wind Quintet this past March which included a performance of Lee Hoiby’s Sextet for Winds & Piano which featured Stuart Malina at the piano.

Summer Music ends with a set of variations on another Schubert song – the composer’s own take on “Die Forelle” or “The Trout” – which is the centerpiece of one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire, Schubert’s Quintet in A Major for Piano & Strings which friends know less formally as “The Trout Quintet.”

Wednesday’s program, however, concludes with the Piano Quintet by Dmitri Shostakovich, a dark and dramatic work judging from its powerful opening Prelude & Fugue – you can hear a recording of the Prelude here. I’m not sure if it’s the Borodin Quartet with Sviatoslav Richter or not, one of the great recordings of the piece, but here is a video of the Fugue played by uncredited string players with pianist Glenn Gould.
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(Sorry about the bad edit at the end, but it's such an incredible performance, I had to use this clip!)

The Quintet was premiered in Moscow in November of 1940 at the start of the 2nd World War (the Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union didn’t happen until the following summer). This official photograph was taken presumably at a warm-up before the Leningrad premiere a month later with the composer, then 31, at the piano and the Glazunov String Quartet.

The Quintet initially began life as a string quartet, what would have been the composer's second. For some reason, then, Shostakovich, a brilliant pianist himself, decided to add a piano part to the work.

When a friend of his, a well-known literary critic, asked him why, Shostakovich responded it was more for practical than artistic reasons: “So that I could have the chance to perform [it] myself and thereby travel on concert tours. Now the Glazunov and Beethoven [Quartets] won’t be able to do without me – and I’ll get a chance to see the world.” Then he and his friend both broke out laughing: “Are you joking?” the friend asked. “Not in the slightest!” the composer replied. “You are an inveterate stay-at-home while at heart I’m an inveterate traveler!” But from the expression on his face, the friend later wrote, it was impossible to tell if he was serious or not. That was very much part of Shostakovich’s character: even when it sounded like he was telling the truth, maybe he wasn’t.

Whether Shostakovich's dream of touring came through or not (it didn't), he did end up giving us, nonetheless, one of the four or five great Piano Quintets in the repertoire.

Speaking of masks, just to prove the tragic mask can be balanced by the comedic mask, the stately austerity of these two opening movements is then followed by a dissonant high-energy wildfire of a scherzo. Here’s a performance with violinists Joshua Bell and Henning Kraggerud, violist Yuri Bashmet, cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Martha Argerich in the third movement’s scherzo (performed here as an encore):
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(Whew! Isn't that amazing?!)

It’s pretty hard to tell what exactly this “scherzo” means in the context of the whole piece, when you consider the Italian word “scherzo” means “joke.” This joke may be lubricated by the flowing of vodka but it’s the kind of earthy joke, perhaps, that no one really laughs at.

The interlude that follows returns to the leaner texture of the fugue (you can hear a recording of it here with, again I assume, the Borodin Quartet & Richter). Considering the dark mood of much of the music so far, the finale, then, might seem far-fetched with its clownish tune full of odd leaps and fanfarish rhythms (or perhaps it’s something with Spanish castanets?). I’ve often heard this movement as an after-thought, almost a disappointment, but when I heard Stuart playing it with the Enso Quartet a few years ago at another Market Square Concert, their slightly faster tempo – it’s marked Allegretto which is not too fast but faster than the standard “walking tempo” of an Andante I’m used to – suddenly made sense when you got to the fade-out ending. After his 5th & 6th Symphonies with their supposedly big positive resolutions in the last movements, listeners might expect a similar happy ending or at least some more dramatic conclusion than this seeming understatement.

(You can hear a recording of Yefim Bronfman and the Juilliard Quartet in the Quintet’s finale, here.)

Shostakovich often wrote music that reminded some of his listeners of things he may have had no intention of implying – the flourishing cult of “secret programs” in the 5th and 10th symphonies, for instance – so it is only my inference, here, when this music reminds me of his after-school gig as a teenager, playing piano for silent movies.

One of his favorite characters was Charlie Chaplin: doesn’t the ending of this gentle, clown-like piece have a kind of off-into-the-sunset glow about it, the Little Tramp swinging his cane, strolling off wistfully into the distance? I’m not saying that’s what he had in mind but that’s what it reminds me of and may explain a lot of about the contrasts in this piece: it’s all entertainment but however we view the world, it leaves us something to think about at the end of the day.

In a few days, I’ll be posting some more about some of the other works on the program, so check back.

And remember, even though it’s summer, the Arts don’t take a break – you can enjoy them all year ‘round!

- Dr. Dick

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