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What Hath Schumann Wrought

New York
Center for Jewish History
05/17/2017 -  
Franz Schubert: String Trio in B flat major, D. 471
Dmitri Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor, Opus 57
Robert Schumann: Piano Quintet in E flat major, Opus 44

Enso Quartet, Phoenix Chamber Ensemble

“We, the string players, wanted to ‘sing’, to play with more emotion. Shostakovich accentuated the constructive, motor elements and achieved his affect through clarity and the flow of the music.”
D. Y. Mogilevsky, cellist of the Glazunov Quartet

It was a bizarre evening.

(1) Every line of the announced program proved untrue. The pre-concert lineup was:
Franz Schubert: String Quartet No. 12 in C minor, D. 703 “Quartettsatz”
Robert Schumann: Piano Quintet Op. 44 in E flat major
Dmitri Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor, Opus 57

...while the actual music performed was as stated above.

(2) In order to attend this concert, every audience member had to walk through an airport-style metal detector complete with security guards. The bizarre factor here is that every New Yorker goes through these devices on a regular basis without even giving them and all they represent a second thought whilst no longer thinking them bizarre.

(3) The concert hall has the look of a professional auditorium, but was haunted throughout the evening with the sounds of babies crying, children talking loudly and doors often opening during the music, letting in distracting light. Of course, this is no worse than Carnegie Hall’s Zankel space wherein one hears the subway rumbling all through the evening, but I for one never go there any longer.

(4) Although the Enso Quartet performed the lion’s share of the music, their first violinist was not listed in the program. A brief search on the internet lists him as – wait for it – one of two women!

Although it is always dangerous to attempt an entrance into the labyrinthine mind of Robert Schumann, it is undeniably true that he invented a new configuration for chamber music with the Quintet for Piano and String Quartet (more about this later). This pitting of a solo keyboard with an ersatz orchestra produced some of the most powerful and deeply complex music of the next 100 years. Without Schumann’s innovative nature there would be no piano quintets of Brahms, Franck or Dvorák, no twentieth century efforts in the genre by Elgar, Korngold or, in this case, Shostakovich (even Webern and Mahler fooled around with this particular child of chamber music writ large). This concert down in Chelsea featured both the original Schumann creation and one of its most colorful progeny.

But first Schubert. Although he wrote over 1,000 works, the three listed members of the Enso Quartet (Ken Hameo, violin, Melissa Reardon, viola and Richard Belcher, cello) presented a full-throated and passionate account of this orphan movement of a work never finished. Overcoming all of the distractions of the hall, the trio performed with stunning blending and passionate interplay.

Upon reflection, it would have made so much more sense to present the Schumann second (as announced in the press), but, alas, this was not to be. The group chose instead to introduce the child of the great quintet before the original, thus squandering a “teachable moment”.

Dostoevsky wrote of an epileptic political prisoner who was paraded to a killing spot in order to participate in his own execution, which was then commuted. The life of Dmitri Shostakovich is the same story but in slow motion. Constantly living on the edge, the composer was dangled to the world as a flower of Russian creativity, but always just a few miscues away from his own “disappearance” under Stalin. No movement in his music is more emblematic of his frenzied and perilous situation than the Scherzo – Allegretto from his Piano Quintet.

Here the quintet performed yeoman-like service, although I missed some of the secret messages and irony built into the score. Pianist Inessa Zaretsky, apparently one half of the “Phoenix Chamber Ensemble”, joined but had a somewhat difficult time keeping up with the string players, notably performing, as we say in Brooklyn, in a fat-finger style. Overall a good effort, but hardly cutting edge bittersweet declamation. The clowns marching out at the conclusion of the music seemed surrealistically à propos (“don’t bother: they’re here”).

Hearing the Schumann again brought back the realization of its titanic nature. Pianist Vassa Shevel muffed her opening entrance but made a nice recovery. Overall this was good music-making, but at least a few steps below an ideal professionalism. Or perhaps I was distracted by those babies...

One more thing. I hate doing this but just cannot let it go. The program notes state “Schumann cannot truly be said to have “invented” the piano quintet... Luigi Boccherini...wrote a dozen works for the same instrumentation”. This is patently false. The pieces in question were composed for the fortepiano, not the pianoforte. Even a cursory listen would reveal the immense distance between the two composers and their inclusion of a keyboard instrument. Oh well...

It was a bizarre evening.

Fred Kirshnit



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