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From Shadows to Light

New York
Kaufman Concert Center, Merkin Hall
03/19/2023 -  
Borys Liatoshynsky: String Quartets No. 3, Opus 21, & No. 4 “Suite on Ukrainian Themes”, Opus 43
Béla Bartók: String Quartet No. 3, BB 93
Aaron Copland: Sextet

Gleb Kanasevich (Clarinet), Javor Brocic (Piano), Bergamot Quartet: Ledah Finck, Sarah Thomas (Violins), Amy Tan (Viola), Irene Han (Cello)

Bergamot Quartet (© Lisa Parente)

My teacher Boris Lyatoshynsky was a great composer, his 3rd Symphony is world class. But more than anything, you have to understand that Ukrainian music, like Russian music, is first and foremost European music. It is part of the European culture.
Valentyn Silvestrov

One needn’t question what Borys Liatoshynsky would have done during the present insurrection of Ukraine. Like his student and fellow Ukrainian Valentyn Silvestrov, he would have declared “What are you Kremlin devils doing?.” And then he, like Silvestrov, would have escaped from his beloved Kyiv, as he was forced to do during the Second World War.

At that time, he wrote many works celebrating his homeland, including the Fourth String Quartet heard this afternoon. But, as the Silvestrov quote shows above, he was an international composer with his roots in his home. Hopefully, through the efforts of the three‑day “Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival Tribute to Borys Liatoshynsky” at Merkin Hall this weekend, that fame will spread to the United States as well.

Certainly, the opening Third String Quartet got a dazzling start from the Bergamot Quartet. A tiny first movement changing into four pictorial movements (Nocturne, Scherzo, Intermezzo, Postlude), each outdoing its description.

Unlike Liatoshynsky’s Fourth Quartet, we had no folkish melodies. The idiom was hardly serial. But the Bergamot Quartet sailed through the fiery portions as though born to the Slavic tradition. At one time, I recalled the name of the Ulysses character, Blazes Boylan. They blazed and boiled. And if at times one lost the logic as each theme expanded and contracted, one was soon brought back to the fervent excitement of the whole.

One never got lost in the Fourth String Quartet. The composer had subtitled it “Suite on Ukrainian Themes.” But this was kind of a ruse. Unlike, say, the thematic Polish and Rumanian works by Weinberg and Enesco, one had to work to find anything familiar here. What did the Bergamot Quartet do? They took the fierce music of each movement, and extracted from each–whether solo cello or a simultaneous melody of violin and viola–melodies which could only have come from Ukraine.

I recognized none, though a few measures seemed to come from Tchaikovsky, that other Ukranian whose origin is usually hidden. And in the last movement, one had an obvious village dance, an incandescent folk‑music played with fiery rhythms.

Not willing to restrict the afternoon to Liatoshynsky’s other quartets, the programmers added two more works written around the same years, in the late 1920’s. Aaron Copland’s spiky, jazzy, serial Sextet showed the young composer, not year 30 years old, as an experimenter, an iconoclast, very much part of the Boulanger/Paris/American group. Fascinating as they were, this work was simply too far away, too American, too distracting from the Central European composers. I left before what I assume would be a good showing.

Thus, the Bergamot Quartet plunged into the Bartók Third Quartet with incendiary passion. The details were quantum-microscope, the textures dense–but even Bartók’s contrapuntal jungle had shafts of light piercing out.

No, we had no Magyar themes. No cheap Lisztian Gypsy music parading like Hungarian music. Unlike Liatoshynsky’s Ukrainian motives, Bartók understood, even more than Liatoshynsky, what could be done with four fiddles. These four artists were ready to whiplash their music. Yet the tricks of the bow, the sounds with the wood, the subtle glissandi fit in seamlessly with the sounds.

Within a mere quarter of an hour, the Bergamot Quartet roamed through a tension-building bleak start, yet almost inextricably they jumped into the lively last half. This was (amongst other things), Bartók’s structural genius. I had lived in Hungary long enough to recognize traditional dancing, and none of it was here. Instead, we had hints of Magyar structure, nuances of old harmonies, solos against fluttering accompanying glissandi.

How easy it was to relate this music which–like that of Liatoshynsky–came from a mysterious country far from Western Europe. In truth, this listener came for the third concert celebrating the Ukrainian genius. Yet the resemblance of the two, writing a year or two apart, was itself enlightening. And an opportunity for any string quartet ensemble to place Liatoshynsky firmly on their first‑tier repertoire.

Harry Rolnick



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