Elegance, warmth and natural beauty are words that come to mind when contemplating Rockport Music’s stunning new performance space. They also characterize the splendid performance given by the St. Petersburg Quartet and pianist Vassily Primakov on July 9. The musicians appropriately brought the audience an ostensibly Russian program of works by Bach, Nadarejshvili, Tchaikovsky and Taneyev played with careful balance and a rare kind of self-restraint, especially in the sparing use of vibrato. The Russians invaded Rockport with panache.
Never having had the opportunity to visit Rockport’s new performing space, I eagerly waited to see what promised to be an almost surreal experience – to see and hear exquisite chamber music played against the backdrop of a sunset on the harbor with its quaint buildings and resting sailboats. The venue itself is worth the price of the ticket, and the fact that the performance was sold out, attested to the fact that Primakov and the St. Petersburg quartet would have an appreciative audience.
The concert opened with an arrangement by the quartet’s violist, Boris Vayner, of Bach’s “Chaconne” from the Partita in D minor. It represented quite a departure from the original work for solo violin, particularly if one bears in mind the numerous arrangements that exist for the piece, from a piano and violin version that Mendelssohn brought to the stage with violinist Ferdinand David, to Joachim Raff’s arrangement for full orchestra. Vayner often realized a four-part polyphonic texture implied by Bach’s variations on the ground bass, and going as far as interpolating other works of Bach and even Vivaldi. The Baroque effect was heightened by the ensemble’s stylishly sensitive approach, particularly with cellist Leonid Shukayev’s gamba-like sonorities, but it also worked against them when the ensemble was not so perfectly tight.
The original program was expanded by the addition of Quartet No. 1 (1985) of Georgian composer, Zurab Nadarejshvili, which the quartet has been championing as a signature piece since its foundation by first violinist Alla Aranovskaya. Although it is clearly a minimalist work recalling Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli style, it is in many ways original and engaging. After the first violinist gave an onstage commentary, the three-movement piece began with harmonics in the three upper strings while the cello introduced a melody that held a sort of timelessness in it. Aranovskaya had aptly characterized it as, “static… containing the [Georgian] people’s whole history in one picture.” Georgian protest songs, shouts and slogans in ever changing meters, complex polyrhythms and ostinati, punctuated the air in the second movement — it was a Soviet era protest near the time when the Union seemed to foresee its own collapse — convincingly portrayed in the experienced hands and hearts of these performers. The narrative was clinched in the third movement with its nearly cinematic portrayal of a male choir rendering its Pshavian lament, laced with a vielle tune and other neo-Medievalisms.
Pianist Vassily Primakov dramatically opened the second half of the concert, first by his Las Vegas cum rock-star attire, then by his coloristic, Glenn Gouldesque rendering of Taneyev’s Prelude & Fugue in G-sharp minor, Op. 29. Composer Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev is not well known in the West, but judging from the two large works dominating this program, he deserves to be. His life was centered in studying, and subsequently teaching in and directing the Moscow Conservatory in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Reminiscent of Brahms, he had spent countless hours studying and composing counterpoint based on early works, which informed his meticulous compositional process, and culminated in an encyclopedic tome on the subject. The Prelude and Fugue for piano was by no means a didactic work; rather, it was a pianistic tour de force full of chromatic harmonies and rich counterpoint brought out by Primakov’s skillful articulation. Unfortunately, Rockport’s instrument seems to be one of the American Steinways that lacks resonance, especially in the upper register.
The sherbet served up between the larger courses was Tchaikovsky’s waltz for piano, “December” from The Seasons. The twelve character pieces that Tchaikovsky wrote for serial publication in a French language version of the étude, called the Nuvellist, though not sublime works, deserve greater attention by American students and artists. The waltz lightened the atmosphere with its melodic charm and cleared the air for the Taneyev Piano Quartet that was to follow.
The large-scale architecture and sumptuous romanticism of Taneyev’s Piano Quartet in E Major, Op. 20 left the audience both exhausted and exhilarated. The quartet had switched its playing style to the use of more bow and a more liberal application of vibrato, long-breathed lines, and broad dynamic sweeps appropriate to the kaleidoscopic melodies and harmonic progressions in the work. The language is at times evocative of Brahms, Borodin, Glinka and Tchaikovsky, but the ideas are worked out in a manner that only a contrapuntist could achieve.
The first movement, “Allegro brillante” was light and vibrant with curtailed dancelike gestures that surprised the audience, causing them to burst into applause at its conclusion, in spite of the fact that they knew better. The dreamy “Adagio” with its walking bass in the cello allowed each member of the ensemble a solo. Cellist Shukayev, violist Vayner, and violinist Alla Aranovskaya were given the vehicle to reveal their own voices, even in the surprising fast section that later returned to the original adagio. The “Finale: Allegro Molto” began with an angular motive echoed in each of the instruments, followed by a chaconne bass pattern, subtly recalling the Bach work at the beginning of the program. A principal theme in this grand rondo-structured movement coincidentally shared the first several measures with the pop tune, “Blue Moon,” which made its various manifestations and returns easy to follow. It took the listener through the winding paths of constant modulations, voicings, and tempo changes until the piece ends with the melody in a far-away serenity — a fitting way to conclude an evening that had been graced by a gentle sunset on Rockport’s bucolic harbor.