Archive for the ‘Chamber and Instrumental’ Category

In concert: Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 40; Hamilton Cheifetz and Janet Guggenheim, March 3, 2011

March 4, 2011

I hadn’t previously been to any of the Portland State University music department’s performances, but fortunately I work only a few blocks from Lincoln Hall and was able to walk up there for a free afternoon recital yesterday, which turned out to be a really agreeable way to spend a long lunch break.  The performers were cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, on faculty at PSU, and pianist Janet Guggenheim, a longtime collaborator with him in the Florestan Trio.  Together they put on a great show, first a short and relatively earthy Haydn divertimento (assembled and arranged from the composer’s baryton works by the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky) and then Shostakovich’s 1934 sonata.  The audience, besides a good number of chamber music-loving citizens, mostly senior, included many PSU music students, there under varying degrees of academic compulsion (the back of the single-sheet program was in fact a question-and-answer comment sheet for the schools Performance Attendance course — “Tardiness and/or early leave will affect your grade”) and filled Lincoln Hall’s basement recital space just about to capacity, a casual but engaged crowd.

The Shostakovich sonata, along with The Golden Age, is a work that I’m happy to have become newly aware of during this blogging process, and Cheifetz and Guggenheim gave a lovely and focused account of it.  Cheifetz drew out the romance of the first movement, especially the sweeping second theme, but also followed it into the dark, brooding space at the center of the movement, an atmosphere later reproduced in the somber third movement; in contrast, he bit off the second movement’s biting staccato rhythms and fast pizzicato runs with force.  Guggenheim played a well balanced piano part, falling into an accompanyist’s role when needed and springing into the musical foreground with a clean and dry sound perfect both for Shostakovich’s pellucid melodies and for his impish theater-piano outbursts.  The last movement came off here as a genuinely lighthearted finale, the energy less jangly than gymnastic and the music pointing back to the piano concerto, taking pleasure in its own humor and movement.

It was just really fine music-making, with a pleasantly loose recital atmosphere.  The elderly woman sitting next to me offered me a piece of jicama from a zip-lock baggie; Guggenheim’s page turner, presumably a student, grinned to herself at the piano’s explosive entries in the fast movements; Cheifetz, receiving his applause at the end, briefly holding up his cello as though to acknowledge his instrument, or perhaps cellos in general.

On a weekend trip to New York City a couple of weekends ago my girlfriend and I absolutely scoured the hall of dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History, and since then my metaphorical thinking has been completely dominated by evolutionary biology.  Thus I inevitably compared the sonata, as I was listening to it, to a coelacanth, a musical specimen that suggests the body plan of later-developing works while retaining a number of “primitive” features.  (As museum placards and Wikipedia entries tend to disclaim, “primitive” is not really a fair word to use here; like the fish, the sonata survives, if somewhat obscurely, on its own merits.)  The pattern of the sonata’s central movements — the fleet-footed but anxious and grim dance, followed by a dark, slowly building movement that form’s the work’s emotional center — repeats itself many times in Shostakovich’s later chamber and orchestral works.  Also, the sonata’s more straightforwardly presented melodies and harmonies set up Shostakovich’s more conventional, abruptly adopted style in the fifth symphony (when I wrote up the Pushkin romances earlier this week I failed to mention the sonata’s place in this development, at least as a precedent).  But the sonata obviously belongs to the style of the works, especially the piano works, that came before it, too; Shostakovich’s passages of musical development, while engaging, feel comparatively shallow, without the clarified intensity that comes later in his output, and the punchy piano part sounds for stretches like it’s been lifted from the 24 Preludes or the piano concerto, rather than carried forward along with the cello part.  It’s a noteworthy link within Shostakovich’s stylistic history, and more importantly it’s a deeply enjoyable piece of music outside of the context of the composer’s many better-known works.

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In concert: String Quartet No. 8, op. 110; Pacifica Quartet, January 11, 2011

January 12, 2011

The Pacifica Quartet’s second of two Portland concerts last night was laid out similarly to the first, with a Shostakovich quartet sandwiched between one by Beethoven and another by one of the great German romantics, and the Pacificas executed it with the same flair.  Last night’s program was actually the more enjoyable of the two:  Beethoven’s F-major quartet, op. 18, no. 1 took the evening off to a spirited start, alternately jaunty and somber; there and in Shostakovich’s eighth quartet, the group played with a particularly clean and well-balanced sound.  For Robert Schumann’s op. 41, no. 1 quartet in the second half they played with a slightly richer texture well suited to that work’s high emotional saturation and tinge of Schumannesque weirdness.  Schumann is one of those composers whose work I don’t know particularly well and should get to know better, since most of what I hear makes an impression.  (This project will actually touch on Schumann directly, eventually, as Shostakovich reorchestrated his cello concerto late in life.)  Their encore tonight was the Cavatina from Beethoven’s thirteenth string quartet, which lowered the energy level after the wide-open Schumann but didn’t cut the audience’s enthusiasm.

When I reach it in sequence I’ll try to unpack all of Shostakovich’s musical self quotations in the eighth, once I can point back to each of the works he references, but at a high level the eighth quartet is a five-movement meditation on the composer’s signature “DSCH” motto theme shot through with recollections of his earlier milestone works.  Prior to their performance, violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson stood up to introduce the work and, with a few examples played by his fellows, gave a concise explanation of the DSCH theme — the notes D, E flat, C, and B, which in traditional German notation are rendered D – Es – C – H, thus forming the initials D. Sch. for (in German transliteration) Dmitri Schostakowitsch — which the mostly unfamiliar audience seemed to appreciate.  He also described the circumstances of Shostakovich’s anguished composition of the work (as was the case last night and happens often enough, the context of Shostakovich’s life merited a pre-performance mention), albeit without the history, verging on mythology, that Shostakovich had just been bullied into joining the Communist Party.

The eighth, then, as Shostakovich wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman soon after composing it in 1960, is a memorial for himself; I hear shades of self-recrimination mixed in with its self-pity.  In a way it is a supremely self-involved work, yet its emotional directness and simple musical development make it Shostakovich’s easiest quartet to relate to, and one of its most popular.  The Pacifica’s clean, almost sleek performance brought the motion of the quartet’s voices to the fore and gave it a medium weight that didn’t bog down in its own sense of tragedy, an especially good approach in the funeral outer movements.  The fast, panicky second movement came off with claustrophobic intensity, and all the blood-boiling excitement I remember from first listening to the work on CD as an eighteen-year-old.  They brought a bit of theatrical showiness to the brittle, ironic third movement; in contrast, they moved briskly through the fourth movement’s long, dramatic crescendos, serving in both cases to open up the work’s interiority a bit.  Brandon Vamos’ playing was exceptionally plaintive in two key cello solos and the ensemble managed a seemingly impossible dying-away at the work’s end.

For Monday’s concert I brought my girlfriend along and made a date out of it but last night I simply strolled in by myself after a late day at work, which needless to say diminishes the concert-going experience; it makes me more susceptible to being put off by the inorganic atmosphere of professional chamber series or the shallow, sentimentalizing “ooh”ing and “ahh”ing from the crowd at this or that terrible detail of the composer’s life.  (A distracting, probably electronic chirping sound of some kind throughout the Shostakovich’s fourth movement pushed me toward the grumpier end of the spectrum too.)  But the audience, including myself, responds in a completely engaged and authentic way — more so with chamber or solo performers, I think, than most of the bigger symphony orchestra shows — so the concert atmosphere, as much as I can bemoan this or that detail, is doing its job after all.  And certainly the musicians, deeply committed and so exquisitely well-trained that the paying listener such as myself can take the works’ technical challenges entirely for granted, are beyond reproach here.

In concert: String Quartet No. 10, op. 118; Pacifica Quartet, January 10, 2011

January 11, 2011

I’m getting off to a decidedly slow start to 2011, Shostakovich-wise, but before picking up where I left off I’ll fast-forward to the 1960s for a pair of string quartets that the Pacifica Quartet is performing in Portland this week.  The first of their two concerts was last night, featuring Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 10, op. 118 of 1964, bookended by Mendelssohn’s opus 12 quartet and Beethoven’s “Hero” quartet in C Major, op. 59, no. 3.

I like the Pacifica Quartet’s sound:  They have a romantic warmth and richness, at the other end of a spectrum from (for instance) the razor-edged modernistic style of the Emerson Quartet, whom I’ve also heard perform a good amount of Shostakovich.  They were at their best in medium-loud, noodly, slightly mysterious passages, which they played with a light touch in the sly canzonetta movement of the Mendelssohn as well as the outer movements of the Shostakovich.  The Hero quartet making up the second half of the show (and undoubtedly its center of gravity) brought out a tighter sound and cleaner lines, at least in part because of the piece’s sense of scale and space, which easily exceeds Shostakovich’s quartet writing easily at its most expansive.

The tenth is one of Shostakovich’s more expansive string quartets — I think it at least has the most symphonic structure out of his fifteen.  The quartet’s body plan is very similar to that of the composer’s first violin concerto (a symphonically broad work) of 1948:  A searching first movement gives way to a furiously fast second; a slow passacaglia forms the work’s emotional center, then gives way to a nominally lighter final movement that climbs to a height of anxiety, with the passacaglia theme breaking through at a key moment.  It’s the last quartet Shostakovich wrote before entering his cryptic, more modernist-leaning late period and it is, measured against the psychological depth of his chamber works, relatively outward-facing.  Yet the Pacifica’s violist, Masumi Per Rostad, made an insightful point in some prefatory remarks about the quartet:  In contrast to the Mendelssohn and Beethoven works on the program, Shostakovich’s first and last movements are less driving and purposeful than the inner ones, creating a sense of mystery.  Indeed, the quartet opens with a quizzical, almost affectless, downward-stepping figure, which the work ultimately circles back to in its final bars, creating less of a conclusion than a sense of a passing, ruminative mood.

I was musing on the drive home from the hall that the tenth may be my least favorite quartet out of Shostakovich’s cycle, which mainly speaks to the consistent quality of the set, as I feel overwhelmingly positive about the tenth.  It does feel like stylistically familiar territory and it lacks the emotional heft of many of his similar works, particularly in the passacaglia — the return of its theme in the final movement, too, feels academic, an imitation of the psychological crisis point that the same move marks in the violin concerto — but it’s a strong work in its own right.  The Pacifica Quartet’s style works well for it.  They sounded great in the blithe, wandering, slightly stunned music of the final movement; their warmth became effectively huskier for the intense music of the fast movements.  A highlight was the end of the second movement, with pairs of instruments trading off strident, squeezebox-like drones while the remaining two worked through a fidgety theme (similar to one at the conclusion of Shostakovich’s then-recent thirteenth symphony) with increasing insistence.

It was a fun show, attended by the usual sea of gray heads but, assuredly, no committed fans of the University of Oregon’s football team, which was in the middle of its national championship game.  (In one of those moments of quiet, situational, chamber-music-concert hilarity, one of the Friends of Chamber Music organizers read out the score as of the show’s opening and, in her bright arts-administrator voice, delivered one of the great sports cliches:  “The score is Oregon 11, Auburn 16.  It’s halftime; a lot can still happen…”)  As a somewhat unlikely but extremely likable encore, the Pacificas played the all-pizzicato movement from Bela Bartok’s fourth quartet, offering a taste of that other great cycle of 20th-century string quartets.  Their second show is tonight at 7:30, also at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, featuring Shostakovich’s eighth and by far most popular quartet — it should be a good one.

No opus number: Moderato for Cello and Piano (1930s)

November 19, 2010

Moderato for Cello and Piano, sans opus (1930s)
mp3 download:  Lynn Harrell (cello), Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)  (Decca 475 7425)

The Moderato for Cello and Piano, composed sometime in the 1930s and discovered alongside the cello sonata’s manuscript in the 1980s, is probably destined to remain an obscure footnote to that larger work.  The two-and-a-half-minute Moderato shares the lyricism of the sonata’s first movement:  The cello part often sounds like a wordless aria with piano accompaniment, not unlike Katerina’s emotional outpourings in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk — my impression is certainly colored by the cello’s quoting of her fourth-act aria in Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet — although the Moderato also veers into salon-music sentimentality as well.

The melodies fail to make an impression and it ends up as a forgettable piece, not surprising for material untouched for decades by a composer who never let a promising musical idea lie unused in obscurity if he could help it.

Opus 40: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1934)

November 19, 2010

Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 40 (1934)
CD:  “Sonatas for Cello and Piano”, Pieter Wispelwey (cello), Dejan Lazic (piano)  (Channel Classics CCS 20098)

I’m very glad to have reached the cello sonata.  Shostakovich’s music for stage and screen has its pleasures but my project leaves me little control over my focused listening, and these mid-November days right after the fallback to standard time from daylight savings have me in the mood for contemplative, chamber-sized music.  I listened through the sonata three times through between Monday and Tuesday (this post goes up late due to some technical difficulties), hearing it for the first time ever in blustery cool weather and then steady rain — too often while driving, but that’s what my schedule this week affords — and it’s both an engaging work of art and an apt companion to the season.

Shostakovich turned into a formidable composer of chamber music but to this point in his career he’d written little of it, at least in part because the Soviet Union’s cultural arbiters hadn’t yet settled the question of whether such small-scale music was too individualistic for the needs of the state and its mass audiences.  His Aphorisms and 24 Preludes, vehicles for his career as a pianist, seem to contain his most personal music so far.  (The first symphony and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk speak with a great deal of emotion and personality, too, but more dramatically so.)  The cello sonata, though it’s more romantically lyrical than the equilibrium his style would hold through the 1940s and ’50s, is the first of his works that I recognize as middle-period rather than early Shostakovich, in its directness of expression and in its symphonic expansiveness despite its chamber size.

A long Allegro non troppo opens the sonata with grace, although it casts shadows too:  The elegant opening theme, in a move that would become typical in the composer’s string quartets and elsewhere, quickly becomes subject to darker-hued dramatics.  A more expansive, upward-reaching second theme, lovelier than is typical for Shostakovich’s melodies, quiets the mood.  The piano introduces it under unabashedly sentimental sighs from the cello, before the instruments trade it off:

That second theme recurs wistfully in between developmental episodes.  The movement ends on a dark note, as the cello slowly restates the opening theme; Wispelwey gives the passage a spectral presence.

The opening of the second movement also sounds remarkable on this disc, a cold, droning whirlwind of a round dance:

The movement lightens in places but despite its motion it frequently sounds hollow, drained of all mirth.  The eight-minute Largo that follows forms the emotional core of the piece.  It is dark, nocturnal music, characterized by searching melodic lines and pulsing rhythms in the piano.  It reaches back to the unsettling Cradle Song that ends Aphorisms and to the murky atmosphere of the Japanese songs, but it also looks forward to the more harrowing Nocturne of the first violin concerto:  A few passages give off a loamy warmth but there is little solace to be found in this musical night.

The fast-moving fourth movement bears the closest resemblance to the puckish but edgy items within the 24 Preludes, although it recalls the first piano concerto too; the former cinema pianist pops out of its theatrical outbursts.  This last movement lacks the concerto’s sunny mood, though, running back and forth between nervous glee and something more like existential panic, especially in some running figures near the end that recall the frenzy of the second movement.

Wispelwey and Lazic have a very fine, full sound on this album.  In particular, the disc picks up a rich range of sounds from the cello body (perhaps enhanced just a little by my noise-reducing headphones and factory-standard Honda Civic speakers).  The two cut appropriately punchy, hard-edged entrances for the sonata’s more theatrical sections, honing the music’s angst; in its less explosive stretches they draw out Shostakovich’s broad, thoroughly mature range from lyrical warmth to psychological darkness.  The album also includes excellent accounts of Prokofiev’s and Britten’s cello sonatas, which I listened through a few weeks ago in sunnier weather.

In spite of its depths, Shostakovich’s sonata has a simplicity of a piece with The Limpid Stream and most of his other works since Lady Macbeth.  That simplicity of expression, increasingly demanded of him (although it seems to grow more organically as well as he moves past a youthful bomb-throwing phase), is stronger and more organic here, as the composer finds a direct musical channel for his emotional ambiguities instead of trying to spike a watery balletic punch.  Although plenty was happening in the USSR in 1934 to fuel dark thoughts in Shostakovich and his fellow Soviet citizens, I don’t hear it as straight autobiography or as a testament to that historical moment — he wrote too much light music alongside it for that, however much you read those as mere sops to the state.  Rather, it seems like a space where he could give voice to his anxieties without, due to its abstractness and more conventional musical development, drawing too much official ire, at least for a time.  It’s music very much worth hearing, and a fine accompaniment to this time of year.

No opus number: Two Pieces for String Quartet (1931)

October 7, 2010

Two Pieces for String Quartet (no opus number, 1931)
CD:  Shostakovich: The String Quartets, Emerson Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon 289 463 284-2)

Contra my plan earlier this week, let’s save Prokofiev for another day and listen to these two transcriptions for string quartet.  I haven’t concocted a consistent approach to the various transcriptions of Shostakovich’s music, by himself or by others.  Whether or not I write about it will probably depend on a scientific, case-by-case evaluation based on its novelty, whether the composer transcribed it himself, what if anything it contributes to an understanding of his career, whether I own it on CD already, or any number of other, unthought-of but nonetheless pressing factors.

At any rate, the two string quartet transcriptions from 1931, the first of an aria from the still incomplete Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the other of the irrepressible Golden Age polka.  Shostakovich had not yet composed his first string quartet — the pieces for string octet, op. 11 were his closest approach to date — so these two pieces stand as an early exercise in the form.

The Emerson Quartet includes them in their remarkable recording of the complete string quartets; the album puckishly titles them “Adagio” and “Allegretto”, after the tempo markings that Shostakovich applied with increasing exclusivity in his late works.  Despite the Emersons’ tautness and intensity, the aria (Katerina’s song of loneliness and frustration from Act I, which I mentioned in describing the romances on Japanese poems) sounds more staid in the instrumental version than when sung by a soprano, particularly in its climax — the melodic line’s angles and leaps are a more familiar idiom for string instruments than for the voice.  The quartet arrangement is more striking in the aria’s long tailing-off, and the Emersons make the most of the piece’s shadowy atmosphere:

The polka’s charms would probably survive any instrumentation.  Here the Emersons’ forceful pizzicato playing serves it especially well, along with their ability to switch instantly from a bone-dry modernist style to lusty fiddling.  It’s a less buffoonish read on the polka than I think is typical, but it’s a likeably prickly one.  A comical-looking musical cactus, if you will.

All of this makes me look forward to listening to the opera and, eventually, the string quartets.  It’s fun learning the lesser-known corners of Shostakovich’s early career but — although so far I would rate New Babylon and The Golden Age as major works, and unjustly underappreciated ones — his best works are the major ones I’ve heard many times before.

Opus 11: Two Pieces for String Octet (1924-1925)

September 10, 2010

Two Pieces for String Octet, op. 11 (1924-1925)
CD:  Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 3, etc., Borodin Quartet and Prokofiev Quartet (BMG/Melodiya 74321 40713 2)

This one’s been at the periphery of my knowledge of Shostakovich’s music for more than a decade, since this 1964 recording by the Borodin and Prokofiev Quartets came included with the Borodins’ Shostakovich quartet box set that I picked up the summer before I started college.  (The BMG release is out of print, their partnership with Melodiya having expired; Melodiya has rereleased it on CD under their own brand, although the line apparently isn’t being marketed in the U.S.)  I’ve listened to it often enough over the years but without forming a clear mental concept of it.  I also missed a Portland performance of it this summer at Chamber Music Northwest’s festival, which I never manage to hear as much of as I think I will before the concerts have to compete with the rest of my summer plans.

The Prelude isn’t a bad piece but not a very gripping one either.  Temperamentally it fits in with the Opus 8 trio, although it has more of an experimental vibe — gently experimental, by the standards of non-Russian music at the time — as Shostakovich continues to test new techniques.  He achieves some nice effects, for instance, early on, the vaporous passage excerpted below, but for me the Prelude doesn’t add up to more than a series of moody, sometimes evocative parts.

The Scherzo — an early example of Shostakovich ironically titling a movement, perhaps, since this second piece is violent and not particularly jokey — has stuck with me more over time, on account of it’s pretty sweet, certainly when you’re a teenager and not acquainted with much chamber music.  Then I was drawn most to some wormy-sounding slides a few seconds before the end:

For its entire four-plus minutes, though, the Scherzo gets by on that level of frazzled energy.  On this listening I was grabbed more by the chattering statement of the movement’s main theme (here at about 0:45):

There’s something in Shostakovich’s melodic development in both of these pieces — in all of his works so far, actually, including the noticeably better-crafted first symphony — that sounds more repetitive, more rigid, less surprising than in his fully mature style in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on, but the second piece here is certainly kinetic and abrasively charismatic enough to hold a listener’s attention for under five minutes.  The sound quality of this recording isn’t great, par for the course from Soviet recording technology of the 1960s, but the Borodins and Prokofievs sound tight and a little bit of sonic grittiness isn’t a bad fit for the Two Pieces’ style anyway.  It’s not an essential work, and I’m not sure I’d recommend the Borodin Quartet’s cycle, as good as it is, over the Emerson Quartet’s more recent one, which is astonishingly well-performed, better engineered, and without a recording of Opus 11.  But the bracing Scherzo makes it a piece of early Shostakovich chamber music worth listening to.

Opus 9: Three Pieces (1923-1924) — Lost

September 8, 2010

The manuscript of Shostakovich’s Three Pieces for cello and piano is lost, according to Laurel Fay and others.  She says that he initially composed four pieces but immediately destroyed the last, reducing the count to three.  At any rate, it’s down to zero now.

Opus 8: Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor (1923)

September 7, 2010

Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 8 (1923)
CD:  Shostakovich: Piano Trios No. 1 and 2, etc., Beaux Arts Trio (Warner Classics 2564 62514-2)

Shostakovich’s first piano trio (apparently composed before the opus 7 scherzo for orchestra) isn’t a fully mature piece but, more than anything else so far except perhaps for the Krylov fables, it functions like an adult work rather than a student exercise.  In a single movement about a quarter of an hour long, Shostakovich satisfyingly develops his musical ideas; also, for the first time, somber drama commingles with lighter, more acidic fare.

In this recording the Beaux Arts Trio performs it with a fitting gravitas.  The album also features two more mature works — Shostakovich’s harrowing, far better known second trio of 1944, written in the middle of World War II and immediately after the death of his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, and his Seven Romances on Verses of Alexander Blok of 1967, a vocal work in his spare, later style — and, although it may only be because the first trio shares disc space with them, I feel the Beaux Arts’ interpretation of the early work is informed by the composer’s later chamber works, especially in drawing out the contrast between heavier and lighter passages.

The trio opens with slow, rolling statements of its descending first theme.  After about a minute this dark opening breaks out into a livelier episode, but one which maintains the sense of foreboding rather than dispelling it:

This builds to a dissonant instrumental stab, after which the introductory material returns and builds up again, this time to a somewhat angular line in the cello.  I don’t want to make too much of it but I’m excited to hear this early instance of what quickly became a characteristic (and much more pronounced) feature of Shostakovich’s music, a rapid switching between outward moods that he ultimately uses to blend tragedy and comedy.

In other respects the trio is of a piece with the composer’s other student works, as in the lyrical theme introduced at about the 4:40 mark by the cello, with a delicate piano accompaniment:


In places the work’s romanticism seems to become self-consciously brittle, with the addition of little pizzicato gestures in the strings or bits of filigree added to the melodic lines, but for the most part it aims to be straightforwardly lovely.  By the end, the more astringent material appears about to have the final say, but a songful outburst — cut by a last scurrying figure — leaves the piece in an only slightly shaded beam of sunlight.  It’s solid music, not an essential chamber work but an intense and varied enough one throughout to hang together.