in: Reviews

September 27, 2011

Transfigured Schönberg, Transcendent Shostakovich

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For some reason we have not before now attended a concert at Tufts University’s five-year-old Perry and Marty Granoff Music Center, so we were anxious to scope it out before the September 23 concert by faculty member Donald Berman, piano, with the New York-based violinist Gil Morgenstern and cellist Ole Akahoshi. We entered the Granoff Center into the Murnane Lobby, swung past the Beelzebubs Box Office (they are a singing group) and the Lester and Gwen Fisher Grand Staircase, and over to the Distler Performance Hall. (Query: does it cost more or less to have your named facility known by only one name?)  The latter is an attractively sleek and modern space, whose smooth but multiplanar wood paneling and semi-plush seats bespoke attention to acoustic detail. It’s a bit surprising that more chamber music by non-Tufts groups isn’t presented here, as its 300 or so seats represent a handy size for the genre, which in Boston is ever short of good venues.

The program for Messrs. Berman, Morgenstern and Akahoshi was a short but potent one: Edward Steuermann’s arrangement for piano trio of Arnold Schoenberg’s tone poem Verklärte Nacht, originally written for string sextet and often done by string orchestras, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, op. 67. The Schoenberg, written in 1899 and first performed in 1902, has long been regarded as the ne plus ultra of chromatic tonal harmony, whose use at one point of an academically forbidden inverted ninth chord got it banned from consideration for an award. (No kidding: this kind of thing really happened back then! academics would of course never condition advancement on adherence to current orthodoxy any more.) Truth to tell, Schoenberg’s harmonic idiom in this piece seems more firmly grounded than in many a seasickness-inducing Reger work we have encountered. Verklärte Nacht interprets a poem by the then fashionably bohemian Richard Dehmel; it tells of a woman’s anguish that the baby she is carrying is not her lover’s (nobody in those earnest fin de siècle days thought it hilarious that the tragedy was that the baby was actually her husband’s.) The lover’s beatific assurances that his love would transform the baby into his own thus transfigure the night from broody D minor with gnashing chromatic excursions and inflections into a moon and star-lit D major. It’s actually very good music.

Steuermann, a great pianist and close friend of the composer—he performed the premieres of both Pierrot Lunaire and the Piano Concerto—sensed the dramatic rightness of having two solo strings act as if they were the protagonists in this drama and transferring the other string parts to a sensitive piano accompaniment. Berman perfectly matched his touch and dynamics to this role, more often than not holding back from what could otherwise have been a domineering presence. The ensemble took the slow introduction rather more slowly than we are accustomed to hear, but that was OK. Morgenstern and Akahoshi were full of passionate intensity and, where needed, angelic sweetness, with fat, powerful New Yorky projection. The transition from the first, broody part to the second—accomplished by Schoenberg’s treating E-flat minor as a Neapolitan relation to D major—was as radiant in this ensemble’s hands as one could hope for. The only miscalculation, which might have been Steuermann’s, was in muting certain passages for violin, which then didn’t carry over the piano and un-muted cello. This one problem was more than compensated by numerous brilliant details of execution.

Without intermission, or even an exit from the stage, the trio proceeded from the self-induced Art Nouveau agonies of the late 19-th century to the very real horrors of the mid 20th, in Shostakovich’s monumental second piano trio. This work responded both to larger and personal sadnesses: the revelation, as World War II wound to its end, of what had transpired in the Nazi death camps, and the mysterious sudden and premature death of the composer’s close friend, Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky, music director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, whose influence on Shostakovich had garnered both the enmity of the Soviet political and musical Apparat. This trio, dedicated to Sollertinsky’s memory, was the first of several Shostakovich works to involve elements of Jewish music, in this case in a finale largely based on Jewish klezmer-type folk music. The reference to Sollertinsky in this is not necessarily direct—it’s not clear that Sollertinsky was Jewish—but both men had an interest in Jewish music for its almost unique alternation and blending of happy and sad elements in the same gesture, and in the composer’s case as a metaphor for all victims of persecution.

The Trio No. 2 is a perfect example of Shostakovich’s ability to portray extreme emotional states within an Apollonian formal structure. It begins with a slow introduction in an eerie passage for the cello in harmonics. Akahoshi’s playing was so powerfully assured that it almost undercut the music’s otherworldly spookiness. The ensemble preserved the chilling effect, however, even as the faster music of the compact sonata-form first movement began. Morgenstern was especially splendid here in his articulations and nimble dynamic shifts, while Berman was also fleet, delicate and powerful, as the occasion demanded. The second-movement scherzo was, according to Sollertinsky’s widow, a sharply etched portrait of the man, with gruffness, grotesquerie and a slightly insane jollity admixed. The slow movement is a passacaglia, introduced by Berman in monumental chords as solid as the Great Gate of Kiev. The strings here were stately, gradually becoming ghostly and melancholy. The finale began with superbly crisp pizzicati from Morgenstern, again in a tempo a bit slower than standard, but fully justified in lending added heft to the many repetitions of one characteristic four-note phrase. From about two-thirds of the way through until the end, the Jewish tunes are joined by reminiscences from the earlier movements, an effect far in expressive intent from the ritual cyclicality that had become a tic of late 19-th century writing, and here allow the universalizing of the ethnic references into a grand and unified artistic and social statement. The ensemble captured this brilliantly, in what was one of the finest performances of this noble work we have ever heard.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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