Magnificent Account of Shostakovich Piano Trio Crowns SummerFest ‘Unsilenced Voices’ Concert

With the exception of Dmitri Shostakovich’s stark but always exhilarating Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Friday’s SummerFest program studiously avoided standard repertory. Titled Unsilenced Voices, this musical adventure offered rich scores whose fates have been compromised by a variety of historical circumstances. The concert opened with Five Pieces for String Quartet, written in 1923 by the Jewish Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who was murdered by the Nazi’s in 1942 and whose music has only recently been revived. French composer Olivier Messiaen wrote his Quartet for the End of Time in a German POW camp in 1940, and Friday’s program included the one movement of that work for solo clarinet, “Abîme des oiseaux.”

(l. to r.) Augustin Hadelich, Andrew Wan, Julie Albers & Matthew Lipman [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, sister of the incomparable Felix Mendelssohn, lived a comfortable life, but no publishing house in the 19th century took women composers seriously, and compositions such as her String Quartet in E-flat Major have only been revived and performed in modern times. Although the twentieth-century African-American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson enjoyed a successful career that encompassed jazz, classical music and commercial music, you won’t find him listed in the standard music dictionaries and histories of American music. But a performance of his Blue/s Forms for solo violin Friday demonstrated why he deserves attention.

SummerFest violinists Andrew Wan and Augustin Hadelich, violist Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Clive Greensmith gave Schulhoff’s string quartet a vital, propulsive account, revealing the sarcastic edge of his bold modernist style. I felt his style had more in common with Bela Bartók than with the cheerful Neoclassicists of the early 1920s.

The rich melodic store of Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major is hardly a surprise, and her brother no doubt approved of her inspiration when this string quartet was played at regular family musical events. Instead of the usual bright sonata allegro opening movement, she presents a calm essay in a minor mode crowned with delectable melodies played with great finesse Friday by Hadelich. Her third movement is not a scherzo, but a flowing “Romanze” blessed with exceptional cantabile themes offered elegantly by violist Matthew Lipman. In Mendelssohn’s joyous final movement, grand flourishes become commanding themes that race by at breakneck speed. Friday’s Mendelssohn performers included cellist Julie Albers, in addition to Hadelich, Wan, and Lipman.

A brilliant showpiece filled with swooping themes, sexy slides, and the occasional jazz inflection, Perkinson’s Blue/s Forms gave Hadelich the opportunity to brandish his formidable technical prowess and rich sonority. Although the work is over in less than 10 minutes, its three compact movements cover an amazing span of musical invention.

Conrad Tao at the piano & Anthony McGill [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

I have never heard a more pristine, otherworldly characterization of Messiaen’s “Abîme des oiseau” than Anthony McGill’s transcendent account Friday. His elegantly shaped crescendos began imperceptibly, and no hint of vibrato marred his lustrous timbre. McGill followed his Messiaen solo with a short work for clarinet and piano, Jessie Montgomery’s 2020 “Peace,” a melancholic pas de deux that he and pianist Conrad Tao executed with elan.

Stefan Jackiw, Conrad Tao & Sterling Elliott [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

Violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Sterling Elliott, and Conrad Tao gave a mesmerizing, probing account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67, completed in 1944 during Russia’s bleakest times in World War II. A towering work that responded to the destruction and tremendous loss of life the war brought to Russia, it provided a searing contradiction to Stalin’s government enforced aesthetic doctrine of socialist realism, which decreed that contemporary music should be restricted to the confines of cheerful folk music that would inspire workers. The style of this Piano Trio and the composer’s earlier shocking opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk formed the basis for Stalin’s official censure of Shostakovich in 1948.

Sterling Elliott’s subtle flash of harmonics that begins the Piano Trio’s first movement was ignored by Friday’s audience members who brought their noisy intermission socializing back into the Baker-Baum Concert Hall. Once they realized that the Piano Trio was under way, however, they calmed down to take in the composer’s eerie, intense counterpoint. For the “Allegro con brio,” the composer demands an ironic aggressive jubilation, which Tao delivered with searing command that somehow did not overpower Stefan Jackiw’s brilliant phrasing or Elliott’s muscular assertions.

After Tao discreetly laid out the passacaglia chordal progression of the “Largo,” Elliott offered his plangent incantation of the movement’s central theme of  breathtaking solemnity that each player extends and weaves into one of western music’s most moving elegies. The turbulent finale with its fraught, angular themes reminds the listener that any victory in war comes at a tremendous cost, and the composer’s quotation of a Jewish theme alludes to the Holocaust. Friday’s performers probed the both the depth and the anguish of this movement with nonpareil skill and devotion.

This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society on Friday, August 25, 2023, at La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.

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