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Revealing the Soul of Russia

by Jeffrey Rossman

The concert presented by Duke Performances on December 5 was a first in several respects and a unique experience for patrons of the Chamber Arts Society. This is the 59th season of the prestigious series but this was the first time that a concert was presented on a Sunday afternoon and the first time that an ensemble gave a second performance immediately following their usual Saturday night booking. If this was an experiment in a different kind of programming – established chamber music programming is by its very nature conservative, so this is a change but the concept is not radical – then it was a resounding success. The St. Petersburg Quartet had played to a nearly sold-out audience the night before (see my colleague William Thomas Walker's review of that concert), and 19 hours later they again had to contend with competition from the annual Messiah weekend at Duke Chapel. Those who attended either of these excellent performances know that the competition for parking spaces was fierce. The start of the quartet program was delayed to accommodate the poor souls lost in Duke's traffic nightmare.

Despite all these obstacles, there was again a nearly sold-out house for this Sunday "experiment." (Duke Performances will be presenting another doubleheader on January 8 and 9, featuring the Eroica Trio.) I think one of the reasons for the tremendous reception given the second presentation was the variety of programming on the two concerts. No matter how much any of us loves particular groupings of instruments, it is safe to say that mixture in the programming lineup is usually preferable, especially when the works involved are masterpieces played by exemplary musicians. This concert had the distinction of featuring a string quartet, a piano trio, and a piano quintet, all on the same program.

The first half of the program took off where the previous evening left off, with Russian works played by four musicians who have the music ingrained in their souls. At this point it is apt to bring up the old question of whether ethnic or nationalistic music is better understood and played by those who are born into its culture. I don't pretend to have "the answer," but it was apparent that these players brought something quite special to works written by Russian composers.

The eclectic program began with the afternoon's only selection for string quartet. Alexander Glazunov, although not as widely known or played now as the other big Russian names, was a prolific and popular composer in the early 20th century. His Three Novelettes (from Five Novelettes, Op.15) were written for a chamber music soiree in 1886, and the lovely, folk-inspired pieces launched the wonderfully varied concert. Their lively rhythms, simple but effective melodies, and an authentic "folksy" feel gave the afternoon a light and festive start – with the more serious stuff coming up.

Pianist Maxim Mogilevsky joined first violinist Alla Aranovskaya and cellist Leonid Shukaev in a powerful reading of one of the masterpieces of 20th-century chamber music, Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor. Written in 1943-44, it is a work that runs the gamut of emotions from profound sorrow at the horrors of the war to brief gestures of uncontained joy before returning to immeasurable grief. The players revealed the emotional depths of Shostakovich's music – the performance was at times so powerful that it seemed you were listening to a musical depiction of raw, exposed nerves. Despite the undeniable technical brilliance, that aspect of the performance took a back seat to the almost frightening realism and baring of souls. Such a spell was cast that, when it ended, it felt like blasphemy to break out with something as crude as smashing one hand against the other. There was a palpable sense among the attendees that they had just experienced a truly transcendent performance.

There are many "what if" games music lovers play. What if Mozart or Schubert or Mendelssohn had lived even ten years longer? On the flip side, imagine what we'd be missing if Bach had died when he was 40. Or consider all of the music written that was destroyed by its creators because it wasn't up to their standards. Johannes Brahms was perhaps the most self-critical composer of them all, and he literally burned countless works.

The whole entourage returned to the stage to play Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor, which went through several transformations before arriving at the form we know and love today. It began life as a string quintet with a second cello – this version was destroyed – and also survives as a piano duo. You can imagine how Brahms agonized over the use of piano in its final incarnation..., but it is a wonderful and well-balanced work that is viewed as one of the great piano quintets – a very select club.

We hope that the enormous success of this weekend with the St. Petersburg Quartet plus pianist Mogilevsky will signal to the presenter that the two-concert format is both profitable and musically satisfying. It shows that even slight variations in format and tradition can reap big results.

   
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