With refugee crises abroad and turmoil surrounding immigration policy in the U.S., local ensembles have been exploring the experiences of those displaced by political upheaval—from refugees seeking shelter to artists seeking freedom. The latest of these took place at the Museum of Modern Renaissance in Somerville on Saturday, where the Ballet Russes Arts Initiative booked the St. Petersburg-based Rimsky Korsakov String Quartet for works by three Russian/Soviet composers displaced by revolution and war in the early 20th Century—Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Gretchaninov, and Mieczysław Weinberg. Most concert-goers know something of Rachmaninov, who came of age at the turn of the century and resettled in America in 1918, but the others are more obscure, and while Alexander Gretchaninov is still largely unknown to American audiences (I’ve never seen his name on a concert program before), the Shostakovich protege Mieczysław Weinberg is enjoying a Renaissance after years of neglect. For Weinberg fans like myself, Saturday was an embarrassment of riches. I sped all the way to Somerville from JP to catch the Rimskys after hearing A Far Cry do Weinberg’s Tenth Symphony at St. John’s Episcopal Church at a concert entitled, you guessed it, “Music in Migration.”
Rachmaninov composed the two extant movements of a string quartet, dedicated to his piano teacher Aleksandr Ziloti in 1889 while still enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory. Not yet having developed the velvet-toned nostalgic style that made his later works so magnetic, his early fragment projected a kind of ersatz Tchaikovsky sans harmonic twists. Nevertheless, the quartet’s opaque sound and wire-tight vibrato, seated in the rich low tones of the strongest members of the quartet Alexei Popov (viola) and Anton Andreev (cello), lent this relatively pedestrian early work a gentle glow. The foursome had open ears for one another. They executed with easy tightness, balanced sound, and accurate intonation when all four members were engaged. But when the music demanded strength, power and intension, first violinist Mikhail Bondarev’s sounded timid, bereft of vibrato. In Romantic repertoire, this tone echoes late-period Isaac Stern; you can hear the crackle of old LPs when it’s nestled in warm bass. But Weinberg’s quartets demand the most self-possessed and stridently virtuosity that a string player can muster, and they suffer tenfold without it.
By far the most interesting piece we heard was String Quartet No. 13 by Weinberg, the lone member of the three featured composers to flee east instead of west—from his native Poland to Minsk in 1939 when the Nazis invaded then to Tashkent when they entered the Soviet Union. In Tashkent word of his music reached Shostakovich and they met in Moscow in 1943 after which the elder composer arranged for Weinberg to join him in the Soviet capital. With all of this hardship, and much more (including his humiliation during the 1948 Zhdanovshchina and his arrest, imprisonment, and lucky release in Stalin’s trumped up “Doctor’s Plot”) behind him, in 1977 he wrote the Quartet no. 13, Op. 118, a meditation in one movement on Shostakovich’s late quartet style dedicated to the Borodin String Quartet. Following Shostakovich, Weinberg dusts his quartets with virtuosic soliloquies for individual instruments, filled with expressive and aggressive writing: wrenching dissonances, awkward double-stops, and brilliant leaps. These mercurial passages shift temperament drastically and quickly, from anguish to ecstasy to terror, and both Popov and Andreev blazed through them with massive sound and intense expression, carefully following their twists and turns.
The evening closed with the mystery man, Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956), whose life followed Rachmaninoff’s trajectory. He was the quintessential late 19th– Century Russian academic composer, with the requisite stellar credentials and conservative taste; when the Revolution eliminated his pension, he left Russia settling first in Paris in 1925 and finally to New York in 1939 where he stayed. “This is your composer!” declared Popov after recounting how Gretchaninov received U.S. citizenship in 1946. The ensemble was eager to share his big-boned, romantic String Quartet No. 4 in F Major, Op. 124 of 1929, and their performance featured some of the tightest ensemble of the evening. They encored with a three-voice canon by Nikolai Sokolov.
Matthew Heck is a musicology doctoral student at Brandeis.