IN: Reviews

Excellent Program of Mildly Familiar, Recherché


Thanks to support from the Saul and Naomi Cohen Foundation, Temple Emanuel in Newton produces a chamber music series that, on October 30, presented cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws and pianist Eugenio Urrutia-Borlando. The former is a well known local freelancer who is a regular with Boston Musica Viva, the latter a visiting fireman from Indianapolis, where he teaches at the Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy. This being the New World, both are natives of Chile and have globe-trotting performance careers. Although this concert was open to the public (and free), it appeared to draw mostly from the local community, which is too bad for everyone else, since Messrs. Müller-Szeraws and Urrutia-Borlando presented an intelligently selected and well executed program, ranging from the mildly familiar to the recherché, from the pens of Ludwig van Beethoven, Dmitri Shostakovich, Gabriel Fauré, and Nikolai Myaskovsky.

We had not previously been to this venue, although it has been used for music programs for a number of years. The hall is, we surmise, a dining and reception facility in normal use and is a rather vast space. As neither the floor nor the performers’ area is elevated, sight lines must not have been very good for anyone past the first few rows, and for a larger ensemble we would worry about excessive reverberation. We don’t know how long the temple has been running its concert series, but we note with some concern the absence of program notes (they did print performer bios), which would probably have enhanced the experience of an audience that would likely be unfamiliar with the repertoire on offer.

With these preliminaries aside, we can report on the substance of the program. The duo began with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 in C Major, op. 102 No. 1. In the world of Beethoven cello sonatas, the “biggies” are No. 3 and No. 5 (out of five total). Numbers 4 and 5 were published together in 1817, having been written two years earlier. The big fugal Finale of No. 5 has made it the more popular of the two, which are early examples of Beethoven’s late period. No. 4 is also an example of Beethoven’s more mercurial expressive output and features a somewhat unusual formal layout. Although listed in the program for this concert as comprising four movements, in reality it only has two (to judge from where the double bar lines are in the score). Two long slow introductions, almost movement-length, introduce two fast ones (which means that all the sections are at least nominally in C), but the latter are full of starts and stops.Müller-Szeraws put forth a full, plummy tone, with well controlled vibrato and a lively saltando bowing when called upon, on what we are told is a phenomenally wonderful instrument lent by the Cohens. It certainly is a beautiful one, but with well controlled vibrato and a lively saltando bowing when called upon. Müller-Szeraws also leaned deeply into the low tones of the second-movement introduction, producing a crunchily grainy effect that favored Beethoven’s highly varied textures. Urrutia-Borlando labored under something of a disability, though: Temple Emanuel’s undersized Petrof parlor grand had a rather hollow bass and a somewhat raw sound overall. The performance, too, was technically skillful but lacking in suavity to match the cellist’s and at points overwhelmed him in volume.

Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in d minor, op. 40, his only foray in the medium (the under-edited program put the “No. 4” here instead of with the Beethoven), was a product of his earlier days, written in 1934. It was not, however, a sunny snook-cocking exercise like his first piano concerto, but a very dappled affair mixing tunefulness with great pathos. (There was much ado in the Shostakovich household at the time, though one should not oversell the connection between life and art.) In their performance, the duo deserves considerable praise; their conception was sound, striking the right balance and presenting Shostakovich’s ideas with clarity and sympathy. Müller-Szeraws was expressively sublime in the great lyrical second theme of the first movement (though there was a finger-slip or two), and Urrutia-Borlando was wonderfully deep and mysterious in the repeated, characteristic A-Ds at the close of the movement. The imbalance between piano and cello persisted, however, especially in the second movement, a typically wild scherzo, where the former engulfed the latter’s delicate harmonics. There was perfect balance, however, and pure beauty in the songful, soulful slow movement, while their slightly slower-than-usual opening tempo for the finale put a sinister cast on the superficially simple theme.

In an interesting programming decision, the duo followed intermission with the brief Romance in A Major, op. 69, by Gabriel Fauré. It’s a lovely but slight work, occasionally showing the composer’s penchant for unusual cadential harmonies. It got a suitably mellifluous performance, but we thought this would have been a better encore piece than something for the main program.

The final work was Myaskovsky’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in a minor, op. 81. Myaskovsky (1881-1950, not 1959 as per the program) was, on the one hand, the pupil of Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov and classmate and friend of the decade-younger Prokofiev, and on the other one of the enthusiastic early adopters of Socialist Realism after the Russian Revolution. He is regarded as “father of the Soviet symphony,” having written a full twenty-seven of them, along with thirteen string quartets. All this faithfulness (he won the Stalin Prize a record-holding six times) did not, in the end, protect him from the vicissitudes of Soviet cultural policy. Like Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian, Myaskovsky was condemned for “bourgeois formalism”; but whereas the others on Zhdanov’s “little list” showed dangerously modernist tendencies, Myaskovsky’s crimes were the opposite. Thus, the Sonata No. 2, written in 1948 and dedicated to Rostropovich, betrays no hint that it was written in the 20th century. This, from a contemporary of Bartók and Stravinsky. Even the apparatchik Tikhon Khrennikov used a more overtly modernist idiom! One can, indeed, imagine the émigrés from the ancien regime listening to this music in their Paris parlors, weeping over past glory. Curiously, for a student of Rimsky, there is precious little identifiably Russian about it, either. It is, nevertheless, graceful, melodious, soulful and mellow, and quite well built. The second theme of the finale is somewhat startling; it seems like a foreshadowing of the great quintet that ends Barber’s Vanessa, written nearly a decade later. One can take its chronology and use it as an ironic framing device, the way one must with the late works of Easley Blackwood. Müller-Szeraws and Urrutia-Borlando made of it a fine showpiece, extracting from it a full measure of sentiment and, as occasionally necessary in the finale, bravura.

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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