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Tchaikovsky and Dvorák: Crossing Parallels

New York
Bohemian Hall
12/07/2022 -  
Antonín Dvorák: String Sextet in A major, op. 48, B. 80
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: String Sextet in D minor “Souvenir de Florence”, op. 70

Philippe Quint, Stephanie Zyzak (violins), Maurycy Banaszek, Paul Laraia (violas), Adrian Daurov, Zlatomir Fung (cellos)

P. Quint, S. Zyzak, P. Laraia, M. Banaszek, A. Daurov, Z. Fung (© Aspect Foundation Archives)

My return to the Bohemian National Home, a regular venue of the Aspect Chamber Music Series, was motivated this time not only by an attractive combination of repertory and artists but also by the presence of Steven Johnson, a highly regarded British musicologist, who was going to deliver a traditional pre‑concert lecture. As I learned this past summer, his pre‑concert talks are the staple of the famed Verbier Festival in Switzerland.

The two works to be performed were the sextets by Dvorák and Tchaikovsky, both favorites of mine. The first of the sextets, the Dvorák, is not as often performed as the second one, by Tchaikovsky, Souvenir de Florence. And among the performers listed were cellist Zlatomir Fung and violinist Philippe Quint; both names guaranteed a very high level of instrumental mastery and musicality.

Thus when Ms. Irina Knaster, the series presenter, organizer, and artistic director, appeared on stage we all thought that there’s some short announcement to be made, but it turned out that it was she who was delivering the talk before each half of the concert. Apparently, at the last moment, Mr. Johnson was unable to appear and she agreed to step in: in my opinion, we could not ask for a better replacement. Ms. Knaster possesses a natural gift of communication. Though she had a printed text in front of her, she barely glanced at the pages and addressed her audience by looking at the listeners rather than reading slavishly from her very fine notes. Thus we were fortunate to have both Ms. Knaster’s verbal commentary and those prepared by Stephen Johnson in the program booklets. Ms. Knaster’s remarks were no less erudite than those of her absent colleague’s: there was no doubt that she knew her subject and that she put a lot of effort into the last‑minute preparation of her notes. She delivered them effortlessly in the most charming manner, sometimes not shying away from humorous asides. As always there was an on‑screen projection with numerous photographs to accompany the lecture, some well‑known, others of rarer vintage. Ms. Knaster wisely chose not to repeat the info that was already included in programs and rather concentrated on the lives and times of both composers, their differences and their similarities. In her compelling presentation, special attention was paid to the divergent education of Dvorák and Tchaikovsky and their respective roles in the music life of Russia and Bohemia as nationalistic composers.

In her intro, Ms. Knaster noted that the paths of our two composers almost crossed in New York: Tchaikovsky visited here and received a triumphant reception in 1891, when he was invited to conduct at the opening concert of then-new Carnegie Hall. Dvorák didn’t visit but moved to the United States in 1892 and became the director of the National Conservatory of Music in America in New York City. The President of that institution, Jeannette Thurber, offered Dvorák an annual salary of $15,000 (or over $450,000 in current terms) – an incredibly lavish sum for the era, twenty‑five times what he was paid at his home Conservatory in Prague. There can be no doubt that Dvorák, hailing from provincial Bohemia, had its folk music in his veins and was so steeped in its idiom that he was able to write folk‑sounding melodies as easily as Chopin did before him. Almost all his music, save for oratorios, is to a larger or lesser degree infused with the tunes that prove his deep involvement in the nationalist movement. Tchaikovsky also frequently used folk melodies and dance tunes in his works but perhaps to a lesser degree. And as Ms. Knaster observed he was chastised by the representatives of the Mighty Five (César Cui, Aleksandr Borodin, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolay Rimsky‑Korsakov). Those five composers banded together in the 1860s in an attempt to create a truly national school of Russian music, free of the stifling influence of Italian opera, German lieder, and other western European forms and criticized Tchaikovsky for not being more involved in the movement. Both Dvorák and Tchaikovsky had mighty musical mentors: for the Czech master, it was a great German, Johannes Brahms; for Tchaikovsky, perhaps because of his traditional training, his idols remained Mozart and perhaps Schumann, and his mentors Anton and Nicolas Rubinstein. Interestingly though, on Tchaikovsky’s side there existed an admiration for Dvorák yet he demonstrated his intense dislike for Brahms.

As for the music, Dvorák’s Sextet is most definitely modeled on a similar work by Brahms: from its opening tune we are enveloped in the warm, affectionate sound sphere, very much modeled on the opening of Brahms B Flat Major Sextet. Here we encounter a composer who has ahead of him still many years to develop, a composer who would soon give us even more formidable works such as his string quartets, piano quintet and string quintets, which with time would become the staples of chamber music. By contrast, Tchaikovsky’s crowning masterpiece Souvenir de Florence is a mature work by a composer, who by the time his Sextet in D minor was first performed, had barely a year to live.

Still, there are numerous similarities between those two wonderful sextets that manifest themselves not only in the four movement model but even more so in their reliance on folk music: the two middle movements of Dvorák are akin in flavor to Slavonic Dances, and they are Dumka and Furiant. In the Tchaikovsky Sextet, the folk influences are displayed in the balletic third movement Allegretto moderato and the Finale Allegro vivace which emulates a vigorous, joyous folk dance.

Generally, Dvorák’s music seems easy and approachable, yet it isn’t all that easy to perform. I suppose that the major problem lies with the very idiom of folk music. Very frequently I feel that musicians not accustomed to the specific inflection, accent, or shall we say diction, speak Dvorák with a bit of a foreign accent. That is to say, a native speaker may know a little better what words would fit the music that has no words. In the Sextet there were numerous moments where I missed that native pronunciation: should Mr. Quint have sung some of the melodic lines to himself, he’d probably changed his concept of tempo or phrasing. Yes, the Furiant may be a very brisk dance but I doubt it needs to be breathless. Dvorák quite frequently punishes the players with music written in the high register and in those times even such formidable players as Philippe Quint encountered some intonation challenge. In Dumka, which in this sextet has a rather dancing than vocal character, at places I missed the sense of breathing which gives music that necessary feeling of relaxation. But these were relatively small quibbles and our six virtuosos offered the unified well‑conceived vision of Dvorák’s early masterpiece.

The Finale: Tema con variazioni consists of five rather traditional variations. In the last one we can already see foreshadowing of a stormy fragment in another Dumka, this one from his most magnificent Piano Quintet in A Major. But the variations, though well written, don’t make for the most inspired music.

After the intermission, there was another elegant and witty slide presentation about our second hero Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and his last chamber work, Souvenir de Florence. Tchaikovsky spent several months in Florence, where he wrote his opera Queen of Spades and continued to work on earlier sketches to his only sextet, which was finally written in 1890. The first performance of the work, after he returned to Russia, left the composer dissatisfied, and over the next two years he was improving on the work, which was a first for him. Yet when we hear it today there is no sense of struggle, drama or despair: this music bubbles with joy, optimism, and maybe even love, and stands as a pillar among his works. In the second movement, after a poignant introduction, we hear an aria intoned by violin and accompanied by pizzicatos of strings which later returns as a cello solo and duet for the two leading instruments. In the Russian language, there is a very special expression that in English translates to “soul‑pinching”. Well, if one was ever tasked with finding such a “soul‑pinching” moment in any music, this Adagio cantabile e con moto would be an unequaled example: in its simplicity, this love duet sounds as sincere, sweet, touching and as highly emotional as any aria in Tchaikovsky’s operatic output. It is not to say that there possibly might be better Tchaikovsky’s works, but for my money, there’s nothing more poignant and stirring than that Adagio. In the dancing finale of this sextet, Tchaikovsky’s academic side comes back briefly to life with a little, obligatory polyphonic segment, a trait often utilized in his chamber works. For myself, I always wonder if the brief quote of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture toward the end of the Finale is intended as homage to his beloved composer or is it simply a melodic coincidence.

As for the performance itself, we were lucky to have among our instrumentalist musicians as prominent as already mentioned Philippe Quint, a marvelous violinist already highly praised on these pages, an expressive, remarkable young cellist, Zlatomir Fung (a Tchaikovsky Competition winner), and two excellent violists, Paul Laraia and Maurycy Banaszek, who sang beautifully their solos in both compositions. They also played on similar, unusually shaped (supposedly made by the same maker) instruments. I had a feeling that Tchaikovsky’s Sextet was not only appreciated by the audience, but also had a special appeal to the performers. It seemed that their engagement, passion and stylistic abilities seemed to be far more successful than in Dvorák’s work and Tchaikovsky’s idiom felt closer to them. There was admirable, precise ensemble work, unity of purpose and technical excellence, especially regarding the intonation which was not always there in the first part of the evening. And with those ecstatic last pages of the Allegro vivace, all my previous little quibbles went happily away.

The next event of the Aspect Chamber Music Series will take place on January 19 , 2023, and it’s called “Orient in Song”. This concert will feature baritone Tyler Duncan and pianist Erika Switzer and as previously will take place at the Bohemian Hall.

Roman Markowicz



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