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Three Russian Giants at BoCo

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Chamber Series Artistic Director, Markus Placci, contributes celebratory verve and energy to his chamber series, which showcases the BoCo at Berklee faculty, as well as important guest performers from around the globe. Friday’s program featured works of three “Russian Giants”—Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, though omitted Tchaikovsky (who often comes out “first” in polls of Russian composers but whose efforts did not produce much chamber music). An excited audience became increasingly euphoric as the night progressed at Seully Hall.

Rachmaninov’s Trio Élégiaque No. 1, a one-movement work that contains the structure of a typical three-to-four movement trio but with 12 subsections, initiated the evening. It seemed an odd choice, as the work itself welds soft phrasing to bombast, better suited, in my view, to a movie score. However, Rachmaninoff was only 18 and still a student when he rapidly penned the trio between January 18 and 21, 1892, a date well before Russian sound film began. The work premiered about two weeks later but was not published for over 50 years. Aleksandr Poliykov’s fine pianistic touch and phrasing nurtured it here, aided by Markus Placci’s exuberant playing and by well-respected cellist Allison Eldredge. The Lento lugubre begins with a cello tremolo, picked up by the violin, but quickly advanced with Poliykov’s clear enunciation of the typically Russian theme on the piano. Then, the cello and violin adopt the theme, while the piano elaborates, deftly done here. These players gave a satisfying representation of Rachmaninoff’s early prowess; Poliykov channeled relish, whie Placci savored.

Seully Hall’s hungry hammergators.

In New York around 1919-1920, Prokofiev encountered the Simro Ensemble: 6 musicians who focused on Jewish culture. They suggested that the composer, then 28 years old, write an overture for them and gave him a notebook of Jewish melodies as background. The resulting C Minor Overture on Hebrew Themes, Opus 34, deftly manicured recasts klezmer melodies with great success—though the composer never thought much of it. Here, it was delivered with verve. Matthew Marsit seemed thrilled to contribute the focal clarinet voice with great excitement, —along with Judith Eissenberg and Placci (violins), Lila Brown (viola), and—importantly, Eldredge since the cello’s lines are prominently supportive. Un poco allegro, the initial theme, felt quintessentially klezmeric, and the Piu mosso, second theme, with its evocative cantabile came across with great heart.

Shostakovich wrote his 20th-century classic Piano Quintet, Opus 57, hands down the centerpiece of the evening, specifically for the Beethoven Quartet on the eve of the German invasion of Russia in 1940. Max Levinson made his fine pianistic skills evident throughout, and Placci, Eissenberg, and Brown collaborated beautifully. The charismatic cellist Rhonda Rider did not disappoint. The Prelude: Lento gave Levinson an opportunity to shine, despite the G-minor key. The elegiac Fugue: Adagio followed heartrendingly. Apparently, the composer joked with the dedicatees that the piano part was easier than strings’. The third movement Scherzo: Allegretto, played with sardonic bounce, perfectly brought out the biting satire of Stalin and his uncultured henchman. The musicians used the Intermezzo: Lento as anticipated, expressing the longing loneliness of the Soviet artist. The Allegretto Finale contains multiple contrapuntal and dense textures, as well as fervent climaxes. I fully embraced the fervor, and the audience roared its agreement.

The next Chamber Series at BoCo is coming right up on November 22nd. It should be worth attending!

Amateur pianist and music aficionado Julie Ingelfinger enjoys day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

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