Shostakovich and Other Russians in La Jolla

Cho-Liang Lin [photo courtesy of La Jolla Music Society]

Cho-Liang Lin [photo courtesy of La Jolla Music Society]

SummerFest Music Director Cho-Liang Lin titled Saturday’s (August 2) all-Russian concert “Homage to Tchaikovsky,” certainly a savvy marketing ploy. But this impatient listener perused the program and saw only the opportunity to hear the Dmitri Shostakovich Piano Quintet impeded by a wide moat of negligible pastiche by Sergei Rachmaninov and Anton Arensky.

The evening’s taut, driving performance of the Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57, delivered as expected, with violinists Jennifer Frautschi and Kristen Lee and violist Richard O’Neill projecting both angst and disdain beneath the composer’s impeccably crafted structures and probing, angular themes. From the Quintet’s outset, O’Neill captured that trademark Shostakovich buoyant melancholy that propels so much of his deeper works, guiding his colleagues through the contrapuntal thickets the composer so deftly devised.

Frautschi and Lee found beautifully matched eerie timbres to open the poignant second movement fugue, and Frautschi’s shimmering solo over cellist Hai-Ye Ni’s delicate pizzacato accompaniment in the Intermezzo could not have been more compelling. Not that the whole piece was devoted to understatement, of course. The Scherzo bristled with the clangorous exuberance that Shostakovich confected to fit the dictates of Soviet Realism, the Stalinist aesthetic doctrine that strangled all the arts in the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century.

The SummerFest string players caught the composer’s zesty irony and appeared to have fun with it, although I thought pianist Anna Polonsky was not bold enough. Her approach was more cool Aaron Copland than mordant Shostakovich.

Although Rachmaninoff’s single movement G Minor Piano Trio (“Trio élégiaque”) was not written as a Tchaikovsky memorial, this student work nevertheless boasts an ample array of the effulgent, arched themes and rhapsodic textures that we associate with the grand Rachmaninoff concertos. Violinist Lee, cellist Ben Hong and pianist Orion Weiss gave this 15-minute study a bold, stirring performance, bathed in resplendent colors and deftly shaded dynamics.

The biographers tell us that Arensky was devastated by Tchaikovsky’s untimely demise in 1893, prompting the younger composer to write his String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 35, as a memorial to his mentor. Using Tchaikovsky’s popular song “Legend” as the basis for an extended variation cycle in the middle movement, Arensky, a respected conservatory teacher, transformed his grief into counterpoint.

In Lin’s short, spoken program notes prior to the Saturday concert, he noted that this unusual Arensky string quartet—it requires two cellos rather than two violins—is worth bringing out every dozen years in a festival context. If I missed this String Quartet in the 2002 SummerFest, I do not feel cheated in the slightest, although I recall with some fondness the Arensky D Minor Piano Trio, which has been offered in La Jolla on occasion.

Both the opening and closing movements of this String Quartet include stately chordal sections that sound like an instrumental version of harmonized Russian Orthodox chanting (Arensky directed the Imperial Choir in St. Petersburg), and with two cellos, the low rumble of legendary Russian basses is easily imitated. The quartet’s finale elaborates the rousing “Slava!” theme heard in the coronation scene from Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, a facile, patriotic solution to Arensky’s challenge to sum up his Tchaikovsky tribute.[php snippet=1]

Those seven pedantic variations of the “Legend” theme wear out their welcome quickly, however, and it does not help that “Legend,” although it was wildly popular in Tchaikovsky’s time, turns out to be one of his most cloying works, similar to the commercial piano music he churned out. The well-balanced, robust ensemble of violinist Alexander Kerr, violist Heiichero Oyama, and cellists Hai-Yi Ni and Eric Kim gave the Arensky every chance to succeed.

Looking for a short insertion of Tchaikovsky’s own chamber music for this all-Russian offering, Lin settled on five movements from Eduard Langer’s skillful piano four-hand arrangement of The Nutcracker ballet, which Weiss and Polonsky executed with elan. Few duo pianists are willing to lighten their customary touch when playing together on a single piano, so most piano four-hand performances sound thick and lumpish, compounded with over-pedaling. But this duo produced a consistently lithe, supple texture coupled with vibrant tempos that proved scintillating from start to finish.

[box] This SummerFest 2014 concert took place at 8:00 p.m. on August 2, 2014, at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art’s Sherwood Auditorium, La Jolla, CA. The festival continue at various La Jolla venues through August 22, 2014.[/box]

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