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Visiting pianist Kirill Gerstein returns for chamber music at Davies

The sort of "politically correct" art that Shostakovich was expected to honor
The sort of "politically correct" art that Shostakovich was expected to honor
by Boris Kustodiev, from Wikipedia (public domain)

This afternoon pianist Kirill Gerstein, concerto soloist for this week’s subscription concerts by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) at Davies Symphony Hall, returned the play chamber music with SFS musicians in the final Chamber Music Series concert of the season. He joined forces with violinists Florin Parvulescu and Polina Sedukh, violist Jonathan Vinocour, and cellist Sébastien Gingras for a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 57, his only piano quintet, composed in the key of G minor. He wrote this in 1940, after he had managed to recover from his denunciation by Soviet authorities as a result of his 1936 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

To flesh out this context a bit, Shostakovich recovered the good graces through the composition of his fifth symphony (Opus 47 in D minor) in 1937, whose dedication amounted to an explicit apology for his lapse in respect for authority and good taste. That symphony was followed in 1938 by his first string quartet (Opus 49 in C major) and his enigmatic sixth symphony (Opus 54 in B minor, originally intended for a project to honor the memory of Vladimir Lenin that never materialized). The Soviet Union was under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression treaty with Nazi Germany. That treaty would not be broken by German invasion until June of 1941.

In the musical context Opus 57 was Shostakovich’s first piece of chamber music for piano and multiple strings since his first piano trio in C minor (Opus 8, composed during his student days in 1923). More interesting, however, may be that he had composed his set of 24 preludes for piano between 1932 and 1933. These used the same key ordering as Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 28 set of preludes; but they constituted a significant departure from Chopin’s approach (as well as, for that matter, that of Johann Sebastian Bach).

By the time of Opus 57, however, Shostakovich was showing interest in Bach’s approach to coupling a prelude with a fugue. That coupling became the first two movements of the piano quintet. His approach was disciplined and austere; but it was also risky, since it could lead to accusations of “formalism” that could entail a second denunciation. The fugue was followed by an intensely ironic scherzo, which may have reflected those rhetorical gestures in the Opus 54 symphony in which Shostakovich explored his interest in Gustav Mahler. The final two movements are an intermezzo and a finale, both of which are innocuously affable in the context of the preceding movements.

This may have been a clever gamble on Shostakovich’s part. He was betting that, in a relatively long piece of “abstract” chamber music, most listeners would only recall how it ended. If this was, indeed, a gamble, then it paid off for Shostakovich. The work was awarded the Stalin Prize by Leningrad’s Union of Composers.

This afternoon’s performances was not overly burdened by the rich context of this composition. However, the overall rhetoric seemed to honor the Mahler-like arrangement of the five movements into three sections: a sober opening two movements, followed by the scherzo, and concluding with two more easy-going movements. Gerstein was always sensitive to how his part blended in with the four strings, not always an easy matter due to Shostakovich’s frequently aggressive approach to boldly-stated themes on the piano. Most impressive was the fugue, which is worked out intricately by the four strings before the piano makes its first subject statement. The scherzo was left to speak for itself, without any efforts to underscore that which was already blatantly apparent to the listener; and the final movements were as calming as Shostakovich probably intended them to be.

Given that Opus 57 was the only work on the second half of the program, it was a bit interesting that the intermission should be preceded by Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 90 piano trio in E minor. As I have previously observed, this trio is called “Dumky” after the dumka folk form of all six of its movements. This amounted to another kind of gamble. While the dumka is characterized by its radical mood swings between melancholia and wild abandon, lining up six of them in a row runs the risk of having them all sound like (to use my favorite quotation from Winston Churchill) “one damned thing after another.”

Fortunately, violinist Nadya Tichman, cellist Amos Yang, and pianist Anton Nel were perceptive enough to recognize that each of these movements had its own individual character. There was also a sense that the entire trio had been conceived in terms of a gradual increase in tension. Thus, there was a clear sense that the final Vivace in the sixth movement was where that wild abandon finally burst at the seams, after which, as William Shakespeare had Hamlet say in his dying words, “the rest is silence.”

The program began with a far less familiar work, the first string quartet composed by Arnold Bax. Bax composed this in 1918. He would wait about seven years before composing another in 1925, and his final quartet was composed in 1936. If this means that the composition of each quartet was a major effort, then the impression on the listener gives no sign that this is the case. The three movements unfold with an almost conversational rhetoric, and the final Rondo is colored with Irish folk and dance thematic material.

All this was more than capably executed by violinists Yukiko Kurakata and Cathryn Down, violist Christina King, and cellist David Goldblatt. Of greatest interest was Bax’ skill at interleaving themes, allowing them to unfold concurrently with no hint of dissonant conflict. The quiet elegance with which this music was performed could be viewed, in retrospect, as a complementing “bookend” to the calm at the end of the Shostakovich quintet that concluded the entire program.

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