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Cherchez Les Russes


Jiří Bárta bows at Toiuro Synagogue a couple of years ago. (Cashman Kerr Prine photo)

For summertime musical entertainments, Boston classical-music devotees have, it would seem, focused pretty much exclusively on venues to the north and west, to supplement the handful offered locally. We offer a modest suggestion: look south, specifically to the belle of the Gilded Age, Newport, Rhode Island. Now in its 49th season, the Newport Music Festival (yes, we know, that’s a bit overly comprehensive, since there are separate jazz and folk festivals, but that’s their name and they’re sticking with it) claims to be putting on 56 concerts (our own news item on the festival claimed 57) over its three-week season of July 7 to 23, but going by their program book, we’ve counted 74! The aforementioned news article, focusing on the change in management of the festival, touched only briefly on the program highlights, but a perusal of its web site (and our calendar) reveals many programs to pique even jaded concertgoers’ interest. The trouble, from the standpoint of Boston-bound listeners, is that many of them take place at odd times of day (one even at 5:24 am!), so hardcore devotees really need to be right there.

All that said, Sunday evening at The Breakers, that ne plus ultra of opulent Newport “cottages,” a fine assortment of first-rate talent in residence offered “Russian Romantics” (that characterization should be taken in the broadest sense, since some of the works were not, in fact, from the Romantic period) of considerable merit. It began with French harpist Coline-Marie Orliac in a brief Nocturne by Mikhail Glinka, dating from 1828 and written in the alternative for piano or harp. Since it is widely assumed that the nocturne as a genre was invented by Irish composer John Field, who resided in Russia over long periods between 1802 and 1830, Glinka was likely influenced by Field. Orliac presented a silken legato, sensitive dynamics and phrasing, and Chopinesque pianistic elegance (maybe just a bit too much of that).

The Glinka set continued with three apparent arrangements (by whom the program never says) for piano and one or two horns, the horns being David Cooper and Eric Ruske, the pianist Daniel del Pino (sitting in for Grigorios Zamparas). The first was another nocturne, possibly from a piano work dated 1839. Cooper, too, dazzled with his legato and dynamic flexibility. There followed a fugue, one of a set of three from 1833-4 (again, we know not which of them, though no. 1 in E-flat major seems the likeliest candidate considering the arrangement), which was an intriguing candidate for this combination. Ruske, this time, was sturdy rather than elegant, with phrasing that rather undercut the trajectory of the counterpoint—though the Romantic period is not where you go for true contrapuntal subtlety. The last piece was a song, here translated as “Don’t Tempt Me in Vain,” which Glinka wrote optionally for two voices and piano. Cooper and Ruske were deliciously in sync on many well-turned turns, and del Pino, as throughout, was both assured and unobtrusive (even in the fugue).

There followed a transcription by Vadim Borisovsky, violist of the famed Beethoven Quartet (for whom Shostakovich wrote nearly all his quartets), of five numbers from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, performed here by Mark Berger and del Pino. “Transcription” may mean that all the notes in the end product are from the original; and may even mean that all the notes from the original are in the end product, but it does not necessarily mean that all the music is in the end product. It’s absurd to think that all the sparkle of Prokofiev’s orchestration could be made to fit into as austere a combination as viola and piano, but the upshot is that the piano does most of the heavy lifting apart from the occasional soaring melody. In these, Berger (himself a composer of increasing renown) distinguished himself with warmth in the Introduction, and ardency in the Balcony Scene, with excursions into emphatic rhythmic precision and ethereal harmonics, while del Pino was fleet and crisp in Julia [sic] the Young Girl, powerful in the familiar Dance of the Knights, and frenetic in the concluding Mercutio.

The pre-intermission portion concluded with the program’s highlight and the second “modern” piece, Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D Minor, op. 40, in an exquisite reading by Czech cellist Jiří Bárta and his compatriot pianist Terezie Fialová. Apart from his 15 string quartets, Shostakovich’s chamber music catalogue was not large, but as Spencer Tracy’s character said of Katharine Hepburn’s in Pat and Mike, “not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce.” The cello sonata is full of the contradictions that people either love or hate about its composer: soaring extroverted melody, chilling ghastliness, ghoulish buffoonery, agonized inwardness. From a deceptively understated opening, Bárta and Fialová built convincingly to the lyric intensity of the second subject, and took the development through emotional peaks and valleys with bravura nuances of dynamics and technique, till the final, chilling, sepulchral recap of the main theme. The slightly (maybe not so slightly) unhinged, galumphing scherzo maintained its nightmarish intensity through eerie harmonics, while the slow movement sustained its tentative, questioning inner dialogue with brilliantly and sensitively deployed psychology. The ever-mystifying finale, full of frenetic and scarily goofy passages, highlighted the fine interplay and complementarity of the performers. These two will repeat this on another program, and, interestingly, there will be another performance of the sonata on the series by a different duo. Worth a comparison!

Terezie Fialová (Český Krumlov photo)

The aft part of the concert (after time to admire the straw-colored full moon over the water from the capacious Breakers terrace) started with Fritz Kreisler’s 1922 violin-piano transcription of the Chanson Arabe from Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 Sheherazade, performed by the eminent Stephanie Chase with pianist Sara Davis Buechner. This duo will have their own program on the festival, which is billed as their festival debut, making this amuse-bouche the teaser preview. Chase gave this very familiar number a plummy, languid opening, and Buechner’s role, though occasionally prominent, was more supportive (Kreisler wasn’t interested in competition). Like the Borisovsky rendition of Prokofiev, crumpling a vivid orchestration into an austere format leads the audience to conjure the original internally rather than admire the colors of the transcription.

The closer was Tchaikovsky’s string sextet Souvenir de Florence, a somewhat troublesome piece that has hardly anything to do with the sounds of Italy (it’s all very Russian), and reflected the composer’s discomfort with writing in chamber genres. One could hardly have asked for a better assortment of people to bring it off: Chase and Irina Muresanu, violins, Berger and Gabriela Diaz (somewhat uncharacteristically), violas, and Bartá and Sergey Antonov, cellos; and indeed, they brought not only technical brilliance but some fascinating interpretive insights to the performance, beginning with a muscular and robust first movement, spring-loaded with tension. The outer sections of the slow movement featured deep rich sonorities, with emotive solos by Chase, Antonov and Diaz, while the middle section rustled darkly. The third movement (which one can’t really call a scherzo, more an intermezzo) followed a judicious tempo build, with the entirety taken more deliberately than other interpretations we’ve heard, and while the finale is less edgy than the other three, it was no easy romp, as the players laced rich sonorities with admirable delicacy.

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