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Born in Russia but raised in Vermont during his father's exile there, 30-year-old Ignat Solzhenitsyn has came to North Carolina on a week-long residence with the NC Symphony. He is a peripatetic performer, both as conductor and as pianist, often as both, conducting from the keyboard. He maintains that "It's the best way to perform Mozart's concertos - that way, you can achieve the kind of spontaneity which is far more difficult when you've got a separate conductor."
Solzhenitsyn's residency began with a solo recital featuring works by Mozart and Brahms, the two composers on whom he will concentrate for the rest of his stay. Why Mozart and Brahms? Solzhenitsyn regards these two composers as representing the pinnacle of musical creativity during their respective periods. But that answer immediately raises the more central question of the nature of creativity and artistic excellence. Solzhenitsyn answered that question as well, both in his playing and in his extensive, articulate remarks from the stage. These were some of the best oral program notes we have ever heard; Solzhenitsyn was able to cover in a few minutes important historical background, biographical information about the composer, pertinent point of musical analysis and - most important - what the music meant to him. He then set about interpretations that "walked the talk."
Solzhenitsyn is both an intellectual and introverted performer; despite having technique to burn, his principal concern is to convey the deepest level of musical meaning and emotion. Let's start with Mozart. Solzhenitsyn opened the program with Eight Variations on "Ein Weib ist das herrlichstes Ding," (A woman is the greatest thing) K. 613, one of Mozart's last works and about as quirky as he ever got. The variations, confined within their four-square structure, are all over the place in chromatic and dissonant writing, providing a view of the composer's inner musical life when he wasn't trying to please a potential patron. The work rather makes one wonder what his music might have become had he lived to the same age as his only slightly younger contemporary, Beethoven.
To end the program, Solzhenitsyn played the Piano Sonata in F major, K. 533/494, another late work, this one superficially more conventionally Classical. In his introductory comments, Solzhenitsyn remarked that today's audiences misunderstand Mozart, perceiving the superficial regularity and elegance of the Classical style as lacking in emotional intensity as compared with the Romantics. In his performance of the Sonata, he deliberately focused on a deeper reading, slowing the tempi and introducing frequent rubati that rendered it a statement from the heart, rather than some bauble for a talented countess. Especially in the slow movement, which he played slower than usual, he took all the repeats, playing more and more softly until he seemed to have enclosed himself in a mystical communion with the composer. And, indeed, he revealed musical depths that one seldom encounters in performance.
The two Brahms works also consisted of a set of variations and a Sonata. Solzhenitsyn closed the first half of the program with the Sonata No.2 in f-sharp minor, Op.2, one of the composer's earliest pieces he shared, seeking guidance and approval, with Robert and Clara Schumann. The Sonata is a turgid, almost Lisztian work with little of the lush thematic content so common in the later Brahms. On the basis of this work, Robert Schumann hailed Brahms as heir to the Romantic mantle. In his remarks on the Sonata, Solzhenitsyn presented a portrait of the young Brahms, the insecure perfectionist who burned most of his early compositions. Then he played it with such intensity that he might have been the composer himself presenting his offering before the greatest composer and his wife, the greatest pianist, of the time.
The actual structure of the program was a set of variations plus a sonata in each half of the program. Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Schumann in f-sharp minor, Op. 9 opened the second half. These variations presaged Brahms' later contribution to this old and somewhat static form. Written shortly after Robert Schumann's suicide attempt and dedicated to Clara, Brahms brought them to her one at a time, "To console me," she said. Their mood - whether slow or fast - is somber throughout. They formed a wonderful pairing with the Mozart Variations because, for their time, they so ingeniously contrived to both reveal and subvert the theme. More than that, were a kind of musical elegy to Brahms' mentor, and Solzhenitsyn once again "became" the grieving disciple and friend.
This week Solzhenitsyn will conduct and perform Mozart's c minor Piano Concerto K.491 Thursday in Southern Pines, Friday in Winston-Salem, Saturday in Henderson and Sunday in Raleigh. The overture to Don Giovanni and Brahms' Symphony No.1 will also be on these programs. In addition, he will participate in a chamber music concert next Monday at Peace College, performing Mozart and Brahms piano quartets. Details for the entire residency are at the North Carolina Symphony web site http://www.ncsymphony.org/news/detail.cfm?nid=76 [inactive 9/06].