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SFS musicians present an elegantly balanced program of chamber music selections

A 1901 painting inspired by Tolstoy's novella
by René François Xavier Prinet, from Wikipedia (public domain)

This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented its latest Chamber Music Series recital of performances by SFS musicians with the occasional assistance of guest artists. I have never investigated just how these programs are planned and usually assumed that they were the result of SFS musicians with shared interests deciding to devote time to preparing specific chamber music compositions, perhaps as a result of the initiative of one or more of the performers. While this may be the result of “bottom-up” activity, today’s program presented an elegant “top-down” design in which two pieces of intense darkness were framed by two far “sunnier” compositions.

The “sunlight” was provided by beginning the program with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 452 for piano (Garrick Ohlsson, who had just competed his performances of the K. 467 C major concerto with Herbert Blomstedt conducting SFS) and four winds: oboe (Christopher Gaudi), clarinet (Luis Baez), bassoon (Stephen Paulson), and horn (Bruce “it’s just condensation” Roberts). At the other end the program concluded with a thoroughly refreshing account of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 111 string quintet in G major for two violins (Melissa Kleinbart and Dan Carlson), two violas (Katie Kadarauch and Gina Feinauer) and cello (Amos Yang). In the center of the program, the Mozart quintet was followed by Leoš Janáček’s first string quartet, a musical interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s lurid novella of sexual abstinence, jealousy, and murder, The Kreutzer Sonata, performed by violinists Chen Zhao and Amy Hiraga, violist Yun Jie Liu, and cellist Peter Wyrick. This was followed (after an intervening intermission) by one of Dmitri Shostakovich’s more harrowing accounts of conditions in Russia during the Second World War in his Opus 67 piano trio in E minor, with David Chernyavsky on violin, Sébastien Gingras on cello, and visiting pianist Asya Gulua.

Janáček’s quartet may have been the result of his own extramarital affair with Kamila Stösslová. In a letter in which he describes the composition to her, he wrote:

I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata.

This suggests that he was more interested in the nature of this particular character than he was in the plot of Tolstoy’s narrative. Nevertheless, when viewing the quartet performed by three men and one woman, it is hard to resist thinking that there is more to the music. The ways in which the two violins share thematic material in the opening movement suggest that they are being introduced to the listener as husband and wife. The viola, on the other had, is pretty much confined to accompaniment during the movement and only acquires a “voice” in the second movement, suggesting that this is the entrance of the “other man” that provokes the protagonist’s jealousy. That leaves the cello to serve as “narrator” (although, in Tolstoy’s text, the narrator is the protagonist, trying to justify the murder he has committed).

This afternoon’s performance encouraged such flights of fancy from the listener. Janáček’s score is decidedly compelling, particularly when he evokes bizarre sonorities, often with at least the potential of salacious connotation, through techniques such as sul ponticello bowing. The music is as consistent with the warped psychologies of Tolstoy’s tale as with Janáček’s own description to Stösslová. Thus, even if the musicians were not trying to be stand-ins for Tolstoy’s characters, they provided an interpretation that could be said to honor not only Tolstoy’s text but also the more specific aspects of that text that appealed to Janáček. In short, it was the sort of performance that made one want to spend more time listening to this particular composition, perhaps while reading Tolstoy.

Shostakovich’s trio, on the other hand, was clearly rooted in many of the formal structures that served his capacity for intense expression so well, such as fugue and scherzo. On the other hand the use of thematic material, particularly in the major section that concludes the trio, with decided Jewish connotations suggests the need for a dispassionate view of Nazi atrocities, on the argument that only through a detached account can one appreciate the full extent of the horror. While there is a tendency to assume that Shostakovich “encoded” many of his compositions to avoid provoking Soviet authorities, where the Nazis were concerned it was clear that all involved had shared feelings of fear and disgust. As a result, Opus 67 is one of his most explicitly visceral compositions; and this afternoon’s performance was never shy about giving full vent to those visceral qualities without ever sacrificing any of the technical demands imposed by the score.

In that context the concluding performance of Brahms’ Opus 111 was a genuine relief. Mind you, the overall plan is not all “sweetness and light;” both inner movements are in minor keys (D minor and G minor, although both end with a final cadence to the major). However, these two movements are interludes that separate the richly heartfelt enthusiasm of the outer movements; and this afternoon’s performance provided a welcome parting of the clouds that had accumulated over Shostakovich’s trio.

On the other hand the Mozart quintet provided an affable welcome to those who had chosen to spend their sunny afternoon inside Davies. Mozart was particularly adept in exploring the interplay between the high winds of the oboe and clarinet and the broader ranges of the bassoon and horn. In the midst of this fabric of interaction, Ohlsson’s piano work provided a solid foundation for thematic exposition and development. Mozart composed this quintet in his late twenties (1784); and he was clearly having a wonderful time exploring the potential in the sonorities afforded by this collection of five instruments. However, between the elegance of his composition and the attentive interpretation given this afternoon, it was clear that the audience had every right to share in that good time. Given the more serious matters that were about to arise, this quintet served its “overture purpose” of encouraging the audience to “settle in” very well.