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Playing Where Words Fail


Violinist Yevgeny Kutik

Sunday, in the capacious sanctuary at Temple in Emanuel Newton, the Saul B. and Naomi R. Cohen Foundation sponsored the appearance of violinist Yevgeny Kutik, cellist Julian Schwarz and pianist Marika Bournaki in a program of two piano trios and an assortment for cello and piano, violin and piano, and violin solo. The large audience, happy to have a concert close to home, was enthralled.

Mozart’s Piano Trio in E Major, K. 542, which many consider one of his best in that genre, opened the event. The sound of the smallish piano lacked the sonic elegance of the two string players, but the performance was lovely, the piece, of course, sublime.

Two well-known selections (Op. 19, No.1 and Op. 67, No. 2) from Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words (arranged for violin and piano by Robert Wittinger) followed. I would have been very happy to have heard far more of these. Both played these miniatures exquisitely. (This was the most beautiful piano playing of the afternoon). The two were culled from three on Kutik’s latest CD, “Words Fail,” released in October. (This is Kutik’s third CD, all on Marquis. His first, “Music from the Suitcase: A Collection of Russian Miniatures, came out two years ago, and hit no. 5 on the Billboard classical chart its first week. He culled the selections from a suitcase of scores that his mother brought when his family emigrated—with only two suitcases—from the former Soviet Union in 1990. Another, “Sounds of Defiance,” featured violin pieces by Achron, Pärt, Schnittke, and Shostakovich. Kutik is a violinist worth hearing. His tasteful playing embodies elegance, tonal beauty, and charm.

Michael Gandolfi’s Arioso Doloroso/Estatico for solo violin,  also on “Words Fail,” received its Boston premiere. Kutik commissioned this work, which surely will enter the violin repertory. Kutik described it as a 21st-century commentary on the spirit (and the first 4 notes of the melody) of Mendelssohn’s first “Songs without Words,” written with this “Words Fail” in mind. Gandolfi’s CD notes describe his nine-minute work well:

Arioso Doloroso/Estatico is a song without words for solo violin cast in a single movement. My method was to include the ‘deliverer’ of the words, the human voice, in this notion- i.e., to construct a piece that begins in a vocal range, with vocal-quality contours, and progresses to an instrumental outburst that overtakes these constraints, not in a display of virtuosity for its own sake, but born from a musical fervor that can only be realized through the unique qualities of instrumental writing. My other models… were the solo violin partitas of J.S. Bach… There are always several voices implied in Bach’s partitas, so my starting point was to do likewise and compose the opening melodic material in two voices. This music is quite somber in tone, hence the word ‘Doloroso’ in the title. It is followed by a series of episodes that increasingly add purely instrumental figuration to the materials, while maintaining its polyphonic design. Ultimately this motion leads to an outburst of delirium, as referenced by ‘Estatico’ in the title, and it is here where ‘the words/voices end’ as it were. However what is gained by this outburst is revealed in its resolution: the return of the opening ‘duet,’ modified harmonically by what was ‘learned in the ‘Estatico’ passage.

Claude Debussy wrote his quixotic Sonata for Cello and Piano in 1918, the last year of his life, as part of a projected six sonatas. Although he only lived to complete three, the Sonata for Violin and Piano, and the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, each is sublime. (I have recently heard two recordings (and one live performance) of the latter with cello and harp, and I have come to love that (extraordinarily difficult) adaptation. Julian Schwartz and Marika Bournaki having appeared a great deal as a duo, handsomely brought out the capricious, ephemeral charms.

Ernest Bloch’s Prayer, which Schwartz dubbed a miniature tone poem, found the perfect setting, inside a peaceful sanctuary, where its interpretation came across as quite lovely. Finally, the three players immersed themselves in Dimitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2, which does not get played nearly as often as his first piano trio. I was most grateful for the introduction to this piece, written in 1944, like the Debussy Sonata for Cello and Piano, in the midst of a Great War. Any fan of Shostakovich’s would immediately recognize in this four movement work his hallmark traits: simple folkishness, satirical edginess, emotional urgency, and, of course, his heightened sense of the grotesque. The two trios bookended a truly memorable afternoon, with commitment, élan, and deep musical understanding

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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