Monday, March 20, 2017

The Jupiter Chamber Players Continue to Explore Unfamiliar Russian Repertoire

Since taking over the leadership of the Jupiter Chamber Players in 2002, Victor Romasevich has led his string quartet colleagues, Michael Jones (violin), Stephen Levintow (viola), and Paul Rhodes (cello), on some fascinating journeys of repertoire discovery. A major path along that journey has involved the music of Iosif Andriasov, with whom Romasevich studied both violin and viola. Past Jupiter concerts have programmed a generous share of Andriasov’s compositions, as well as music by his son Arshak.

Yesterday afternoon Jupiter returned to the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church. The elder Andriasov was again included in the program, but this time the historical perspective addressed the opposite direction. Rather than considering the relationship between father and son, the program offered music by Evgeny Golubev, who taught the elder Andriasov between 1958 and 1963. (Alfred Schnittke studied with Golubev between 1953 and 1958.) Golubev’s music filled the second half of the program with a performance of his Opus 39 quintet for harp and string quartet in C minor. The string quartet was joined by Olga Ortenberg Rakitchenkov, harpist in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. (Golubev’s Wikipedia page describes this piece as “one of Golubev’s few works that are still occasionally performed.”)

It is understandable that Opus 39 is only “occasionally” performed. Bringing a capable harpist together with a string quartet interested in new repertoire is not always an easy matter, particularly when than “new” repertoire is over half a century old. However, yesterday’s performance made a strong case that this is music that deserves more attention. The quintet was composed in 1953, the year in which Joseph Stalin (as well as Sergei Prokofiev) died. As is well known, composers did not fare well under Stalin’s tyrannical rule; but his death led to a period of leadership uncertainty, which did not make things much better.

It is thus surprising how freshly optimistic Opus 39 is, even with its minor key signature. From a technical point of view, the piece is particularly notable for how perceptive Golubev was in writing for the harp and in finding ways to balance it against the string quartet. The result provides an opportunity to appreciate the extensive breadth of possibilities for virtuosity coming from the harp, all of which blend in with the strings with impeccable balance. There is even a delightfully amusing exchange in which each quartet voice plucks out its own pizzicato motif, returning to bowing only after the harp makes its “Me, too!” entrance.

Andriasov himself was represented with only three short pieces for cello and piano, for which Romasevich shifted from violin to piano to accompany Rhodes. Each involved a composition from a different time in Andriasov’s life, rearranged for cello and piano. The earliest of these (1955) was written for flute and piano, and second (1970) was for oboe and chamber orchestra, and the third (1981) was for mixed a cappella choir. Each of these had its own characteristic approach to melodic line, which made the transition to cello and piano a relatively smooth one. However, compared to Andriasov’s other work, these were vignettes, perhaps out of recognition that Golubev was the focus of the afternoon.

The program began with two more familiar composers. The first of these was a serenade for two violins and viola composed by Zoltán Kodály (his Opus 12) between 1919 and 1920. This was written after Kodály’s ethnomusicological field work, much of which was conducted with Béla Bartók; and one is readily aware of the field sources, particularly in the energetic concluding Vivo movement. Romasevich, Levintow, and Rhodes then performed the third (in C minor) of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 9 string trios. This was a capable enough reading; but it tended not to dwell on many of the witty turns through which Beethoven was clearly trying to one-up his former teacher Joseph Haydn. However, even in the presence of these more familiar composers, it was the discovery of Golubev’s quintet that made yesterday afternoon’s journey so worth the while.

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