Saturday’s concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival called itself “The Russian Soul,” which bemused us, inasmuch as one can hardly imagine more disparate personalities in mainstream Russian music than Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. Still, there’s something to be said for the pairing (and the Borromeo Quartet has been doing it for some years now).
Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op 57 began the somewhat abbreviated program. While it is not strictly true that the composer wrote no chamber music before his string quartet series began, in 1938—there are the early Piano Trio No. 1 and the exquisite Cello Sonata—his output began in earnest in the 1940s, as a means of expressing private thoughts that might have exacerbated his political troubles, bad enough already, in his more public symphonic works. That said, the Quintet, from 1940, was conceived in part as a showpiece for the composer as pianist and as a vehicle for generating gigs abroad (it ultimately succeeded). At the same time, the composer took the opportunity to explore methods of older music, especially Bach, for integration into his unique idiom. The Piano Preludes Op. 34 owed more to Chopin than Bach, at least directly, but the prelude and fugue that constitute the first two movements of the Quintet are a more direct confrontation with the master (this kind of writing would be denounced in 1948 as “formalism”). Of particular interest is the slow fugue, which became a Shostakovich specialty and of which the Quintet is the earliest example, the magisterial op. 87 Preludes and Fugues containing several.
Pianist Diane Walsh plunged into the stately prelude, shortly matched by the massed strings: Anna Lim and Jennifer Elowsky, violins, Becca Albers, viola, and Trevor Handy, cello. Shostakovich often leads with viola, and Albers was reliably forthright. The fugue has a complex, winding theme whose initial statement, in the composer’s wonted way, was diffident and without affect, the better to set up the gradual intensification that begins with the piano’s entrance and the development-sized episode. The ensemble staged this progression brilliantly, winding down at the end to a dignified sigh. There follows one of Shostakovich’s most popular and characteristic movements, a scherzo full of fun with jagged edges. From the look of them, though, the players—Walsh excepted—were attuned more to the jagged than to the fun. The fourth movement (of five), in the manner of an aria from a Bach suite, has a canto that Lim in particular carried with solemn grace and that the ensemble brought to an emotional apex without losing composure. The finale is marked Allegretto (none of the movements is faster), and the group hewed closer to that tempo than some others we’ve heard, which is okay because it sets up the off-kilter folksiness of the second subject, whose hummable regularity is undercut by octave displacements. Shostakovich saved a joke for the end, a delicate pizzicato landing whose perfect execution elicited the requisite chuckle.
The second half also had but one piece, Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet, subtitled Souvenir de Florence. In his astute program note Will Hertz pointed out that the title is somewhat ironic, as the music suggests that the memory the composer retained from this Italian sojourn, unlike the one that yielded the Violin Concerto, was fairly sour. This moodiness was exacerbated by his struggles over formal matters; and, truth to tell, with the possible exception of his Piano Trio, none of Tchaikovsky’s small body of chamber music reflects his best inspiration. Still, this piece has lasting popularity for its undeniable tunefulness, most of which is carried by the first violin (David McCarroll) and first cello (Peter Stumpf), while the others (Lim, violists Christine Grossman and Albers, and Handy) mostly supply accompaniment and leavening.
On this point a small digression seems in order. Our review of Thursday’s PCMF concert [here] noted with some asperity the use by many contemporary composers of instrumental techniques—in the case of strings, things like harmonics, glissando, sul ponticello, sul tasto, col legno, snap pizzes, and so forth—as self-contained expressive ideas. While there’s nothing wrong with any of these techniques, their highest and best use is to add color and texture for a particular expressive purpose to an underlying idea. Schoenbergian Klangfarbenmelodie may be interesting in small doses, but there’s a forest-and-trees problem in much current writing. In the case of the Sextet, though, the composer’s mastery of the string technique of his day made his use of bowing techniques like spiccato an effective textural offset to the legato lyricism of his tunes.
The performance of the sextet left little, if anything, to be desired. McCarroll and Stumpf, whether alone or in duet (and Grossman and Handy on the few occasions they were called on) were lyrical and heartfelt, and while Tchaikovsky’s scoring may have been undemocratic, the sonic balance of all the instruments was never an issue. A few highlights we noted were the Russian, hymnodic section of the slow movement and the brilliant unison crescendo in the finale.