Four Passionate Hours
St. George Anglican Church
The Montreal Chamber Music Festival: “Marathon Concert: The Passionate Russians”
Dmitri Shostakovich: Two Pieces for String Octet, Opus 11 – String Quartet Number 7 in F-Sharp Minor, Opus 108
Peter Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence, Opus 70
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Sonata for cello and piano in G Minor, Opus 19
Anton Arensky: Piano Trio in D Minor, Opus 32
Alexander Glazunov: String Quintet in A Major for string quartet and cello, Opus 39
The Chiara String Quartet: Rebecca Fischer, Julie Hye-Yung Yoon (Violins), Jonah Sirota (Viola), Gregory Beaver (Cello); The Cecilia Quartet: Sarah Nematallah, Min- Jeong Koh (Violins), Caitlin Boyle (Viola), Rachel Desoer (Cello); Rachel Barton Pine (Violin), Marcus Thompson (Viola), Denis Brott, Denise Djokic (Cellos), Kevin Loucks, David Jalbert (Pianos)
Cecilia Quartet (© Courtesy of the artists)
What was the genesis of the final Montréal Chamber Music Festival performance? Perhaps the organizers were in the mood to add passion. And nobody can be as passionate–or as lunatic–as Russian composers of the 19th Century.
They probably imagined the most passionate opera of all, Boris Godunov, but decided to make the concert 30 minutes longer than the Mussorgsky! And now you have a marathon four hours of Russian music called, appropriately enough, “Russian Passion.”
True, the mad Mussorgsky wasn’t scheduled. But Shostakovich had enough psychological mysteries to qualify. True, Rachmaninoff, after an early nervous breakdown, wrote a sonata which was passionate enough. And while Glazunov and Arensky were superficially more German-normal, underneath both composers lay some insoluble enigmas.
Then again, perhaps the passion lay in the artists chosen for this final program. An early Shostakovich octets is almost never performed, and to have a pair of all-female string quartets would make it even more fascinating.
That, in fact, was the start, where the Chiara Quartet and Cecilia Quartet joined together for the Octet. The second of two movements was pure delight by the eight players. This was a typical Shostakovich galop, played with spirit, vigor and beautiful tones. The first movement, though, is a Shostakovich mystery, a structure varying meters, moods and scales. It should be gripping, but here the two groups played it note for note, with little giving indication of their early composers.
The Seventh Quartet, though, played by the Cecilia Quartet, almost had it right. These are the perplexing knocks…or hammer-blows…or whacks with a stick. We will never know the meaning. But the Cecilia Quartet turned that first movement into a piece of whimsy rather than the prelude to deeper questions.
That opening was quickly forgotten with a Lento that seemed frozen in time. Solo instruments murmuring, preparing for a cello solo that came from the darkest depths. The finale started with superficially delight, but that fugue, played faultlessly here, led to some true fireworks.
The two most surprising works on the program were by Glazunov and Rachmaninoff. Poor Glazunov was never quite at home with either the “nationalists” or the “modernists” who he taught. But the Quintet, new to this listener, was a serious interesting work, highlighted not only by the Chiara Quartet but the addition of the Nova Scotia-born internationally famed cellist Denise Djokic.
D. Djokic (© Anna Keenan)
Ms. Djokic offered, I felt, the most stunning single work in the four-hour session with her usual accompanist David Jalbert. The Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata is not unknown on the concert stage, but these two performed with relentless energy, with the fierce inhuman passion which gave allegiance to the title of the concert.
The composer does go on a bit in his music (only recently was the Second Symphony performed without cuts), but this 25-minute work was never boring. I heard these two before at New York’s BargeMusic venue, but now they have achieved a real greatness.
Another rarity was Anton Arensky, known mainly for supplying a theme to Tchaikovsky, though his piano music has been promoted by Vancouver pianists James Anagnoson and Leslie Kinton. Whatever his music is, he made even the neurotic Mussorgsky seem the paragon of sanity.
Arensky was not only a manic drinker, an obsessional gambler and a religious mystic, but he was also manic-depressive, and chronically ill, dying at the age of 45. Still, he managed to produce a Piano Trio which, while sounding more Brahmsian than Russian, was played with electric distinction by Montréal’s great cellist Denis Brott, pianist Kevin Loucks and violinist Rachel Barton Pine.
R. Barton Pine
Ms. Pine led Tchaikovsky’s homage to Florence. Like his Capriccio Italian, it was less Tchaikovsky personal pain and more geographical paean.
Sitting four hours on church pews is not the most entrancing experience in the world, even with three intermissions. But the ending to the marathon–and the Festival–offered, from both creator and artists, undefiled joy.