in: Reviews

March 14, 2011

Two More Stars from Odessa


About a year after he had been appointed by John Kennedy to a position in charge of intercultural exchanges with the Khrushchev-era Soviet Union, Isaac Stern was asked: “What is it like to be in charge of cultural relations with the USSR at a time of such high cold-war tensions? It must be very difficult, no?” To which Stern replied: “Au contraire, it’s a piece of cake. They send us their violinists from Odessa, and we send them our violinists from Odessa.”

Alexei Semenenko and Artem Belogurov were schoolmates in Odessa at the Stolyarsky Special Music School, perhaps the very cradle of Odessa violinists (and more recently, pianists). Stolyarsky, a famous pedagogue, taught David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein, and many other Soviet –era composers and musicians.

Semenenko, a recent third-prize winner in the 2010 International Paganini Competition in Moscow who was visiting from Ukraine, was the guest star of a concert on March 8 in Brookline. He was brought to us by virtue of a happy meeting between composer Tony Schemmer and pianist Artem Belogur0v, who emigrated to the United States, graduated from the New England Conservatory, and now studies with Peter Serkin. Clearly, Odessa produces some marvelous pianists, as well as world-class violinists.

The genesis of Semenenko’s visit to our shores is, parenthetically, a reason to note that, notwithstanding the solo violin pieces on the program, most were works for violin and piano, and they were definitely not works for violin “with piano accompaniment.” Indeed, one of the joys of the evening was the stunning partnership between our two young musicians: their voicing and exchange of contrasting main and subordinate lines was quite special.

First on the program was the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D-minor Partita. It would be daring enough for a violinist to end a program with the Chaconne, but to begin with it? But then why not, especially in America? The Chaconne is a dance, one that allegedly came to Europe from the New World, specifically from Peru and the Incas. It is a solemn, serious dance, but a dance nevertheless, and most definitely not the academic treatise it often becomes in the hands of so many violinists. Semenenko made the Chaconne dance. I asked him if he had ever learned to dance or sing in his musical education — one of my major pet peeves being that most instrumentalists never do either, and therefore frequently know neither how to move, nor breath. He said he had sung in choirs, but no, he had not taken dance lessons. Still, he plays as if he had. (But, of course, the cognoscenti know that Ukranians – especially the ones whose names end in “nko”—“got rhythm.”)

Then followed the first and 17th Paganini Caprices for solo violin (Op. 1), amazing pieces played with stunning, accurate technique and intonation by Semenenko, but also with beautiful phrasing. Perhaps thanks to his teacher Locatelli, Paganini wrote showpieces that are also real music.

Next up, Tchaikovsky, and the beginning of the collaboration between Semenenko and Belogurov. First was a moving and passionate performance of the “Meditation” from Un Souvenir d’un lieu cher (Op. 42), a warm, melodious work originally planned to be the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. This was followed by his Valse-scherzo, Op. 34. That one really made us want to dance!

Concluding the first half of the concert (this was shaping up to be a BIG program… but we were elated, not exhausted…), was another Paganini work: “La Campanella” (“the little bell”), a piano transcription of the last movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2, one of the most delightful rondos in the literature. Semenenko and Belogurov played it with verve, wit, and delicatesse… not to mention the Semenenko’s spectacular left-hand pizzicato work. Paganini’s Champagne bubbles –real Champagne, not “Pops” imitations — brought us to intermission.

The concert resumed with music by Schemmer, first with his 1990 Toney Tango, a brilliant, dramatic work. In this violin and piano version, it was a great showpiece for Alexei’s technique, sense of dance rhythm, and skill in making dramatic, abrupt, changes in moods, including a “quarter-minute waltz” midway. The Tango was followed — in elegant paired symmetry with the pre-intermission Tchaikovsky meditation-plus-dance — with a Schemmer bluesy meditation, “Sandor’s Ballad,” from the second movement of his Sonata for Reed and Piano in arrangement for violin. Semenenko’s warm tone enveloped the audience and created an atmosphere of quiet contemplation, one that continued by a third brief Schemmer bon-bon, Divertimento.

Then the reverie was broken, as the duo thrust us into Richard Strauss’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in E-flat, Op. 18, the sonata world’s equivalent of a musical tsunami. The work was composed in 1887 when Strauss was twenty-three and in the throes of his initial passion for his student, future wife, and performance collaborator, soprano Pauline de Ahna. It is a remarkable foreshadowing of the romantic, sometimes revolutionary Strauss to come, as well as a preview of his and Pauline’s later marriage notoriously tempestuous, but long and happy.

The program listed it as a “Violin Sonata.” That is quite the understatement: the piano is in fact a (more than) equal partner, and, although the work observes the niceties of sonata form (from here to there and back, in three movements), and honors predecessors Schubert and Beethoven by alluding to Erlkonig, and quoting the “Pathetique” Sonata, it is bursting at the seams, all but exploding into Strauss’s subsequent tone poem and operatic worlds.

More than a sonata, it is almost an aspiring concerto, with the violinist needing the sound of a concert-hall soloist, and the pianist obliged to play with the full force and colors of “the orchestra that wants to be there” – especially in passages such as the horn calls in the early measures of the first and last movements, and in the latter’s ultimate apotheosis. It is a “first draft Heldenleben,” packed with the eroticism that would fuel Don Juan (written the next year in 1888), Salome, Rosenkavalier, and Arabella. Is there another chamber work, let alone sonata that is as testosterone-saturated as this one? Bartok’s equally youthful Piano Quintet, composed a decade later in 1897, is the closest equivalent I can think of — and Bartok employed three more instruments! (This music, of course, came from the same Richard Strauss who presented to the world a demeanor more typical of a 1950s-era community banker, a fact interesting to contemplate from the perspective of our Era of Lady Gaga…)

Semenko and and Belogurov were the perfect match for Strauss’s tour de force, whose emotional range had to have broken new bounds at the time, going from the very heights of ecstatic elation to the most delicate tenderness, and back. Not only was their technique and power up to the task, but their sensitivity to the different voices, moods, and characters in the drama, and the suspension of time in phrasing, clarified what could easily have been but sound and fury in lesser hands. Is it coincidence that our two performers are also almost exactly the same age as was Strauss’s when he wrote this work? (!) Who better to express youthful, male passion, than these two so well matched artists?

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to is that they gave me, an unabashed lover of Strauss’s later works, an appreciation for this sonata I simply did not have before, either as a listener or violinist. I had heard recordings of the Strauss over the years and had never warmed up to the piece. These two players helped me to understand why. The work simply doesn’t compress into the bytes and bits of even the best recordings; its scale and its vast pallet of moods demand a live performance, in much the same way that photos of a Hagia Sophia or Petra are but pale reflections of the real site. Semenenko and Belogurov’s powerful, clear interpretation brought that musical reality to life.

I hope, and trust that we will hear much more from these fine young artists in the future.

Lawrence Franko, an investment manager, is concertmaster of Sounds of Stow and also performs often with his wife, a pianist. He is a graduate of Harvard College (’63) and the Business School (’70).

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