To the memory of great artist
92 Street Y
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Selections from The Seasons, op. 37a: “January”, “February”, “October” & “November” – Piano Trio in A minor, op. 50 – Sextet for Strings in D minor “Souvenir de Florence”, op. 70
Frank Huang, Sheryl Staples (violin), Cynthia Phelps, Rebecca Young (viola), Carter Brey, Eileen Moon (cello), Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Y. Bronfman (© Dario Acosta)
It must not have been easy for Yefim Bronfman and the musicians of the New York Philharmonic to gather again at the 92 Street Y to play Tchaikovsky’s chamber music barely a few hours after finishing a grueling run of orchestra concerts. But they are pros and it shows each and every time they perform. Here at the Y the Philharmonic’s first desk string players first offered us a magnificent reading of the sextet Souvenir de Florence, then assisted Yefim Bronfman in the Trio in A minor. These two works might very well be the most popular of Tchaikovsky’s output in that genre, which was not especially rich or prolific; the only other works of note are the three string quartets, yielding just one famous movement Andante cantabile from No. 1 in D Major.
The history of the Trio in A minor, which was composed after the sudden passing of Nikolai Rubinstein, is worth remembering for at least two reasons: first was the composer’s alleged dislike for the instrumental combination. In a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck Tchaikovsky specifically notes: “How unnatural is the union of three such individualities as the piano, violin and the violoncello! Each loses something of its value... A trio implies equality and relationship, but do theses exist between stringed solo instruments and the piano? They do not; and this is the reason why there is always something artificial about a pianoforte trio.” That was in October of 1880, when Nadezhda asked him why he had not written a single trio. An even more forceful answer came from Pyotr Ilyich: “I do not care for the trio as a form therefore I shall never produce anything sincerely inspired through the medium of this combination of sounds”.
A year later Tchaikovsky was at work on his only piano trio, ostensibly to please his patroness, but deep down in order to write a musical eulogy for Rubinstein, who after initially savaging the young composer with his criticism of the First Piano Concerto, later became one of his greatest musical champions. It is also interesting that the two were never really friends, for while Rubinstein was not only Tchaikovsky’s advocate but a generally beloved musical figure as well, Pyotr Ilyich disapproved of the Master’s lifestyle. And that probably explains why the Trio in A minor has a moniker “In Memory of Great Artist”.
Yefim Bronfman, who just the night before had played his third performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, must have been fairly exhausted. Perhaps that influenced the general qualities of this presentation. In New York Bronfman showed his command of that piece quite recently when he played it at Carnegie Hall with Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lynn Harrell. Perhaps the larger auditorium allowed for different sound production and better balances. This Trio is following further remarks by the composer to his patroness, when he states: “The piano should only be employed in three cases: 1. as a solo instrument; 2.opposed to the orchestra; 3. for accompaniment, as the background to a picture”. Here in the Op. 50, the orchestra is replaced by string instruments. But apart from this he follows those “options”. The piano dominates the proceedings regardless of how much the violin and cello contributes. I am afraid that in spite of gorgeous sounds produced by the two NY Philharmonic principals, and their wonderful contributions in each of the two parts of the Trio, the performance as a whole lacked that last ounce of elegance. Here I would blame it on the forcefulness and power produced by the piano, which often roared but rarely sang. There simply was too much strength too often producing faulty balances and too seldom a sense of grace. I found the same perfunctory qualities in the four little solo selections from The Seasons; the twelve lovely miniatures that make this cycle and that opened the program also received perfectly fine if a little dutiful, mechanical reading surprisingly devoid of charm.
Things improved dramatically when all six string players appeared to play for us the infectious, delightful sextet called Souvenir de Florence. As many commentators have noticed – and as any seasoned listener would too – this piece could be called Souvenir from almost any other city in Europe. True, it germinated in Florence, where Tchaikovsky was working on his opera, Queen of Spades. The composer had his reservations and doubts about the use of instruments in that combination (though he must have heard the well-known string sextets by Dvorak and Brahms using the same combinations of strings). Tchaikovsky was enchanted with this type of grouping and yet unsure he could resolve the problem of “writing for six independent voices”. It took more than a year of rewriting some parts before finally the work was presented at the Russian Music Society in St.Petersburg on Nov. 24, 1892.
It is the last of Tchaikovsky’s chamber music works but at the same time it is one of his most sunniest compositions. After the brio of the opening Allegro con spirito comes what for me remains one of the most beautiful movements in all Romantic music: the Adagio cantabile e con moto, the most melodically inspired movement of the whole sextet. The first violin leads the melody – played meltingly by Frank Huang – with the lower strings gently accompanying. And as if to dispel any doubt that he can write in a polyphonic style, there is an obligatory contrapuntal section in the otherwise very Russian sounding finale.
The ebullient, cheery Souvenir de Florence received a deeply felt, engaging, vigorous performance by the excellent members of the NY Phil string section. I was impressed by the warmth of the lower strings and glad that in the ranks of the orchestra we have such marvelous players as Cynthia Phelps, Rebecca Young, Sheryl Staples and Eileen Moon, in addition to previously mentioned Mr. Huang and Mr. Brey.
Though the advertisement for the concert put Mr. Bronfman’s name in the lead, I left the hall with the impression that the string players were the real protagonists of the event. As for the Trio in A minor, my long held belief that it is one of the most difficult compositions in repertory, chamber music or otherwise, was once again justified. There are in this score so many large and small details that can go wrong during a performance that it is a rare occasion when one hears this magnificent piece as perfect as it is... in this writer’s imagination.