Monday, July 24, 2017

Old First Concerts Spans Three Eras of Russian History

Yesterday afternoon the Old First Concerts series at Old First Presbyterian Church presented the duo of Korean cellist Sarah Hong and Japanese pianist Makiko Ooka, who perform under the group name Le Due Muse. They were joined by Korean violinist Jiwon Evelyn Kwark. The program consisted of a cello sonata flanked on either side by a piano trio.

All of the composers were Russian, and what made this program particularly interesting was that each of the three selections captured a different period in Russian history. The cello sonata was the most recent. However, the substance of the program can be better appreciated if those periods are considered in chronological order.

The earliest work on the program was the first of the two compositions that Sergei Rachmaninoff entitled “Trio élégiaque.” Rachmaninoff was a child prodigy, who began his studies at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1883 at the age of ten. The family moved to Moscow, and Rachmaninoff studied at the Moscow Conservatory between 1885 and 1888. On February 11, 1892, about a month short of his nineteenth birthday, Rachmaninoff performed his first independent concert; and the program included the premiere of his first “Trio élégiaque,” written in the key of G minor.

This was a time when Russia was still a monarchy, and organizations like the Moscow Conservatory depended on royals and nobles for support. One of the strongest supporters was the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, grandson of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia. The Grand Duke was, himself, a pianist and had been a personal friend of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Whether or not the Grand Duke was in Rachmaninoff’s first audience, the composer certainly knew his influence on standards of taste at the Conservatory; and those standards would have been on his mind when he presented his first original work to the public. The trio was only a single movement, about a quarter hour in duration, coupling a Lento lugubre introduction with a Più vivo main section. Rachmaninoff was clearly more interested in the rhetorical impact of his thematic material than in any of the virtuoso displays for which he would later be better known (if not notorious). Yesterday afternoon’s performance had no trouble maintaining the low-key understatement of that rhetoric, presenting this “beginner’s effort” in the best possible light.

The next period in history that figured in the overall program was that of World War II. Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Opus 67 (second) piano trio in E minor in the summer of 1944, a time when Soviet forces had finally overcome the German invasion. Shostakovich had written his Opus 65 (eighth) symphony in C minor about a year earlier; and this is usually taken as his most harrowing response to the conditions of life in wartime. The trio is probably best known for the “Dance of Death” rhetoric of its final (fourth) movement. The principle theme suggests a Jewish melody and may have been an intentional reflection of the Nazi efforts to exterminate Russian Jews.

From a technical point of view, the trio is most challenging in its opening measures in which the cello introduces the first theme played entirely with harmonic bowing. Hong rose capably to the demands of this opening passage, which seems to suggest the human spirit pushed up to (if not beyond) the breaking point. This marked the beginning of a journey through emotions that may not have been as dark as those in Opus 65 but were still fiercely intense. From a point of view of overall scope, this was the major work on the program; and all three members of the trio mustered the necessary technical and rhetorical skills to deliver the treatment it deserved.

The end of World War II may have meant the end of the Nazis, but it also meant that Joseph Stalin was still the authoritarian power. 1946 was the year of the Zhdanov Doctrine, developed by Andrei Zhdanov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. That doctrine was an attack on “Western” influences on the creative arts, condemned as being “formalist.” This was a time when Shostakovich had to hide his compositions in his locked desk drawer, since any thought of performance was out of the question.

Nikolai Myaskovsky’s Opus 81 (second) cello sonata in A minor may be one of the better examples of a composer trying to stay on the right side of the Zhdanov Doctrine. The themes that evolve over the course of the sonata’s three movements are easily recognizable, and straightforward melody prevails over both embellishment and development. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine Stalin having hummed any of these tunes after listening to a performance. (It would probably have been better for all concerned had the music lured him into slumber.) Le Due Muse gave the score an honestly sincere account without overly stressing the dark times under which it had been composed.

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