Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Anxiety (and Joy) of Influence

This afternoon's Noontime Concerts™ recital at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco featured a piano trio of faces familiar to most San Francisco concert-goers. Since cellist Miriam Perkoff provided some spoken remarks, I assume that she had much to do with organizing the trio and probably the program. She performed with violinist Mariya Borozina and Miles Graber; and the program consisted of two works, the first piano trio by Sergei Rachmaninoff and a suite of five Bergerettes by Bohuslav Martinů. These works were as radically different in sound as their composers were in their approach to their work.

Were anyone to remark that Rachmaninoff's trio, written when he was nineteen and subtitled "Trio Elégiaque," seemed to indicate the influence of the first movement (Pezzo elegiaco) of Piotr Tchaikovsky's trio, Rachmaninoff might easily have responded with the Russian equivalent of Brahms' remark about the influence of Ludwig van Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" sonata on his own first piano sonata (observing that every jackass notices that sort of thing). Had this observation been made near the end of Rachmaninoff's life, the jackass would probably then have been treated to a sermon over how most composers have become so preoccupied with the head that they have forgotten about the heart. It is clear that Rachmaninoff had a lot of heart, and he was already capable of displaying it to good effect at the age of nineteen. I do have to wonder, however, whether his final years might have been overly bitter. If it was hard to hear the "heart" in the music of, for example, Arnold Schoenberg, that may have been due to performers who had not been adequately prepared or even (dare I say it?) a reluctance on Rachmaninoff's part to give the really "new" music a fair shot at those techniques of good listening! Today it is probably Rachmaninoff who suffers for being viewed as too old fashioned and not always given the attention he deserves by performers.

This was not a problem with this afternoon's performance. The music was rendered on its own terms. Given his background and talent, Rachmaninoff showed a bit of a bias towards the piano part; but Graber was excellent at keeping that part balanced against the two string players. This work is unlikely to ever be as popular as Rachmaninoff's compositions for piano and orchestra, but those interests of good listening were well informed by hearing the output of a student who would eventually grow into a monument of virtuosity.

On the other hand audiences (at least in the United States) are usually not that familiar with the work of Martinů. Even his Wikipedia entry (which may have been what Perkoff consulted for her introductory remarks) is relatively modest. What is more interesting is that, while he tends to be associated with Czech nationalists, he left Czechoslovakia for Paris in 1923 to escape the Nazis; and, if we are to judge by the Bergerettes, he soaked up just about every influence being explored during a really dynamic period. The result was not a pastiche of influences but a characteristically unique voice filled with enthusiastic energy. All five of the pieces in this suite are in "standard" ternary form; but there is nothing standard about his choice of thematic material, the cadences that delimit the sections, or even some of the performance techniques, particularly for the violin. Nevertheless, there is a decided Czech flavor to the sound, almost to the point that the work makes a fascinating complement to the "Dumky" trio of Antonín Dvořák. One way to view the Dumka form of the six movements of that piano trio is as basically ternary but with a coda based on the middle section. However, while the Dumka tends to progress from melancholic to energetic, Martinů's Bergerettes tend to start with high energy, using the middle section for catching up with one's breath.

It is thus hard to find two composers as radically different in outlook at Rachmaninoff and Martinů, and the same may be said of the pieces chosen to represent each of them. Nevertheless, each work was given the same respect on its own terms. So the result was a recital of contrasts, which, itself, offered much to make us better listeners.

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