Last night’s recital in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church presented the Melodiya Chamber Ensemble. This is the duo of violist Sergey Rakitchenkov and pianist Arkady Serper, both of whom are familiar visitors to Old First. The program consisted of duets and solos covering the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The nineteenth-century composers were Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, with an encore by Felix Mendelssohn. The twentieth century covered a more diverse collection including Béla Bartók and Sergei Prokofiev (the two piano solos), as well as the less frequently encountered composers Nino Rota and Fyodor Druzhinin.
The major work on the program was also the last, Schubert’s D. 821 “Arpeggione” sonata in A minor performed on viola with piano accompaniment. As I have previously observed, Schubert kept the arpeggione part within a relatively narrow dynamic range, which can raise major problems when the accompaniment is a grand piano. Serper addressed this problem by keeping the lid closed, resulting in an account of the music that amounted to an intimate conversation (well served, as always, by the Old First acoustics). For his part Rakitchenkov was solidly in command of the arpeggiated and pizzicato passages that were clearly designed for an instrument with more strings, providing an engaging contemporary account of a sonata seldom experienced as the composer intended.
More suited to the viola (and far more fascinating) was the Schumann offering. Towards the end of his life, Schumann composed two viola compositions on the theme of fairy tales (Märchen). Both are in four movements, and neither is about the tales themselves. Rather, each has a title that reflects a different way of relating the tails: Opus 113, scored for piano and viola, is through pictures (“Märchenbilder”); and Opus 132, for clarinet, viola, and piano, is through narration (“Märchenerzählungen”).
Last night’s concert presented Opus 113. While it is not difficult to associate this music with images, it is clear that Schumann never gave much thought to the distinction established by his titles. Both the viola and the piano play out melodic lines that elegantly capture the rhetorical shaping of a skilled narrating voice. This is particular evident in the breathless qualities of the second lively (Lebhaft) movement and the rushed (Rasch) third movement. However, the impact is greatest in the melancholy expressiveness (“melancholischen Ausdruck” in the tempo specification) of the final movement. In this valedictory passage the melodic line of the viola works its way in between the upper and lower voices performed by the piano. This short piece is an apex in the landscape of Schumann’s ability to capture intimacy, and last night’s performance registered that intimacy with breathtaking effect.
Serper continued the fairy-tale theme with Prokofiev’s Opus 31 collection, Tales of the Old Grandmother. Here, too, the music is less about the tales than about the voice telling them. This was composed in 1918 shortly after Prokofiev’s arrival in the United States and was probably included in his first solo concert in New York. It incorporates many of the rhetorical tropes that Prokofiev would later put to use in other “narrative” compositions, including his much later ballet score for Romeo and Juliet. Serper also performed “Devilish Suggestion,” the last of the four pieces in Prokofiev’s Opus 4, concluded in 1912, the same year in which he composed his equally “devilish” D minor toccata. Both of these are works of rampant virtuosity that earned the young Prokofiev his enfant terrible reputation; and Serper attacked the keyboard with energy that was wild and controlled at the same time.
Rakitchenkov took his own solo turn in a set of variations by Druzhinin. Druzhinin is best known as the violist to whom Dmitri Shostakovich dedicated his Opus 147 sonata, his final composition. Druzhinin was also teacher of the viola virtuoso Yuri Bashmet. The variations that Rakitchenkov performed were composed in 1969 and display both virtuoso and expressive qualities over a relatively extended theme. The music is highly introspective and deserves more frequent attention before its techniques of embellishment and prolongation can be fully appreciated.
More accessible was a short intermezzo for viola and piano by Nino Rota. Rota is best known as a film composer, particularly for Federico Fellini. However, he also composed operas, as well as orchestral, choral, and chamber music. His intermezzo was relatively innocuous. However, since it followed the fierce pianism of Prokofiev’s Opus 4, it was strategically positioned to allow the audience to catch its collective breath. Similar accessibility could be found in the transcriptions of the two Bartók dance pieces that opened the program, as well as the Mendelssohn encore, an arrangement of one of the Songs Without Words, which was performed after the extensive and expressive journey of Schubert’s D. 821.