Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jean-Michel Fonteneau Frames his SFCM Recital with Shostakovich as Subject and Object

Last night’s Faculty Artist Series concert in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) was prepared by cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau. Dmitri Shostakovich provided the “bookends” for the program, but in a non-standard way. The second half was devoted entirely to his Opus 40 cello sonata in D minor. However, at the other end, the evening began with three seldom-performed compositions by the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, one of which was entitled “Prokofiev and Shostakovich Strolling in Moscow.”

Like Shostakovich, Piatigorsky was Russian. Born in April of 1903, he was thirteen at the time of the Russian Revolution. Within five years the Soviet authorities were preventing him from leaving the country to further his cello studies; so, along with other artists, he smuggled himself into Poland on a cattle train. By the age of eighteen he was studying in Berlin, where he came to the attention of Wilhelm Furtwängler, who hired him as principal cellist in the Berlin Philharmonic. He would subsequently make France his base of operations until the arrival of the Nazis. Fortunately, he had good connections in the United States (including Leopold Stokowski) and was able to move. He led the Cello Department at the Curtis Institute of Music between 1941 and 1949. He would then go west to teach at the University of Southern California (USC), where he remained until his death. Together with his Southern California neighbor Jascha Heifetz, he was instrumental (pun intended) in making major chamber music recordings for RCA Victor and in creating a series of chamber music recitals for Los Angeles audiences.

Fonteneau began his program with three short pieces that Piatigorsky composed for solo cello, each with personal connections. The first two were taken from photocopies of manuscript pages. The first, entitled “Prayer,” was an homage to Ernest Bloch and amounted to a personal reflection on what could be called Bloch’s “Hebraic rhetoric.” The second, “Syrinx,” was dedicated to his former student Nathaniel Rosen, who had won the gold prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition and had also taught at USC. As one might guess from the title, the music also offered a subtle nod to Claude Debussy. As to the third piece, Prokofiev had composed his Opus 58 cello concerto in E minor for Piatigorsky, but Lev Berezovsky played the premiere so poorly that Prokofiev was turned off of writing for the cello until meeting Mstislav Rostropovich about a decade later.

Piatigorsky’s “portrait” of Prokofiev and Shostakovich is cleverly ironic. It suggests some of the prankish qualities in the early works of both composers. However, by the time they knew each other, Stalin was forcing his presence into every aspect of Russian life, including artistic practices. Times were bad for both Prokofiev and Shostakovich; and one can hardly imagine either of them have the spirit to “stroll” anywhere. One might almost approach this short piece as a pas de quatre macabre, the other two “dancers” being the NKVD tails that Stalin has assigned to keep tabs on both composers.

The Shostakovich sonata was one of the last pieces in which he could openly exercise his prankish rhetoric. It was composed in 1934, the same year in which Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was first performed. The success of that opera brought it to the attention of Soviet authorities, who were far less enthusiastic. By 1936 Shostakovich was “officially” out of favor with Stalin’s government. One result is that it is difficult to listen to the high spirits of playfulness in the second and fourth movements of the sonata without thinking of the dark times the future had in store. Nevertheless, performing with student pianist Xin Zhao (’17), Fonteneau brought out all of the high spirits originally intended for these movements, separated by an intense Largo and introduced by an Allegro non troppo, whose opening gesture seemed to be a deliberate evocation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The middle portion of the program was occupied by two composers both affiliated with Yale University, Paul Hindemith and Quincy Porter. The Hindemith selection was his only sonata for solo cello, one of the four sonatas collected in his Opus 25. Composed in 1923, when Hindemith was enjoying his reputation as a modernist throughout Europe, the sonata takes the “arch” form that appealed to many composers of that time (including Béla Bartók). There is a central Langsam movement, the longest and most rhetorically expressive of the piece, flanked on either side by pairs of fast movements. All four of those movements are almost breathlessly brief in their respective durations. It is almost as if the opening fast movements “warm up” the listener for the Langsam, after which the two final movements revive the spirits.

The Porter selection was his third string quartet, composed in 1930. Fonteneau was joined by violinists Bettina Mussumeli and Alisa Rose (’07) and violist Jodi Levitz. Composed in three movements, the quartet involves highly imaginative counterpoint of interleaving voices as thematic material seamlessly migrates from one instrument to another. As members of the Ives Quartet, Mussumeli and Levitz both contributed to recording the full canon of Porter’s quartets, all but one of which are now available on Naxos recordings. Last night’s performance brought out all of the engaging qualities of this music, continuing to make the case that these quartets deserve more exposure to concert audiences.

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