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Tag: Shostakovich

ANAM ChamberMusic Festival

A brilliant way to finish the year — four concerts of chamber music played by the talented students of the Australian National Academy of Music. And three of my favourite pieces were included. Even now, four days later, Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet is running through my head.

The first piece provided a bit of nostalgia for me, because I had played it several times years ago and love it. Jan Dismas Zelenka has rightly earned the title, ‘the Czech Bach’. He lived at the same time as Johann Sebastien Bach: Zelenka 1679 — 1745, J.S. Bach 1685 — 1750. His music is different from Bach’s — possibly more influenced by a folk tradition, but it has similarly rich harmonies and ingenious use of fugal themes. I was pleased that on this occasion Trio Sonata number 6 was performed on conventional rather than Baroque instruments (with the exception of harpsichord). The parts, for two oboes, bassoon, harpsichord and double bass are technically challenging even with modern day key systems. I try to imagine how the players of the early 18th century wind instruments managed. Their oboes and bassoons were made with very few key coverings — similar to the recorders we know today. The ANAM players gave an enlivened and thoroughly satisfying performance.

A Baroque oboe

In keeping with the theme of Bohemia, we heard a Piano Trio by Smetana, unfamiliar to me, and then the String Quintet in G major by Antonin Dvořák.

First of three concerts the next day started with Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Winds. The ‘winds’ are flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn — essentially a wind quintet and piano. I was familiar with a couple of movements of this piece: the middle movement, a Divertissement: Andantino and the final Prestissimo movement (very fast). Poulenc was self-educated musically as his parents thought he should join the family business. Many of his works are playful and irreverent although, particularly later in his life, he wrote more serious religious music. He joined five other young French/Swiss musicians, Les Six (Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud and Tailleferre) who reacted against the impressionism of fellow countrymen Debussy and Ravel.

We then heard Instruments III by Morton Feldman (1926 — 1987) for flute, oboe and percussion. I pitied the wind players — they blurted out sounds at each other — the oboist had to play oboe (and cor anglais) with a mute, which distorted the sound and tuning.

Amy Beach

The next piece I did enjoy, by a composer unknown to me, Amy Beach (1867 — 1944). Amy Beach was the first female American composer of large-scale art music, having written a symphony. When she married, Amy had to agree to live according to her husband’s status (he was a Boston surgeon) — this meant that she had to agree never to teach piano and she gave only two public recitals a year, the proceeds of which went to charity. After her husband’s death in 1910 she would go in summer to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where she could meet other women composers. The piano quintet we heard is thought to have been influenced by Brahms, with its lush textures. The piece is for string quartet and piano. During her lifetime, Amy — a very accomplished pianist — would often play the piano part at public performances.

In the afternoon we were treated to some superb chamber works, starting with Rachmaninov’s Trio Elégiaque in G minor (violin, cello and piano) and then moving to one of my favourite pieces of music, Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. I had heard a fantastic performance of this work in Adelaide earlier in the year and although this was superbly played, it didn’t quite live up to my recollection of Konstantin Shamray and the Australian String Quartet This was perhaps partly because the cellist kept tapping his foot quite loudly on the bare wooden floorboards! It was nevertheless wonderful to hear this work of underlying rebellion.

Shostakovich (and Stalin)

The Shostakovich was followed by Stravinsky’s Octet (flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone), and then Janáček’s Mladi, for flute, oboe, two clarinets (one bass), bassoon and horn. This piece was composed near the end of Janáček’s life and in 1925 (he died in 1928) it was awarded the Prize of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Rebecca Clarke

The final concert was subtitled ‘A Soirée in Vienna. It opened with the Mozart Horn Quintet, the horn part ably played by Stefan Grant. We then moved to a piece new to me, Poem for String Quartet by Rebecca Clarke (1886 — 1979). She was a violist and is described as one of the most important British composers between World War I and World War II. Clarke ended up living and working in America when she was thrown out of the house after criticising her father for his extra-marital affairs. She used a male pseudonym to tie for first place with Ernest Bloch in a competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. At the time, the idea that such music could be written by a woman was inconceivable.

After a short interval we heard Webern’s Langsamer Satz (slow movement), composed in 1905. Webern is recognised as a follower of the ’12 tone’ approach to composition, whereby in a piece no one note in the chromatic scale is favoured (no key note or centre). But the system wasn’t put into use until the 1920s, so this string quartet, composed when Webern was twenty-two was harmonic and tonal.

The concert concluded with a brilliant performance of Schubert’s Quntet in A major (‘the trout’). I love this piece and have heard many live performances, but I felt that this was utter perfection. The music is still ringing through my head. Liam Freisberg, who led on violin, did a magnificent job. Ben Tao played viola, Noah Lawrence cello, Paul Oakley double bass and, especially outstanding, Leo Nguyen on piano.

Emanuel Vardi: Schubert Trout Quintet (Vardi was a virtuoso violist)


Dmitri Shostakovich

This concert was performed in the Adelaide Town Hall as a part of the Musica Viva program. Given the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the Shostakovich programming seemed highly appropriate. More poignant when the brilliant Russian pianist, Konstantin Shamray, gave a short opening speech saying that whereas some of his fellow countrymen were afraid to speak out against Putin, he was not.

Konstantin Shamray

The programming seemed appropriate to me because I associate Shostakovich with quiet, underlying rebellion. In 1934 he wrote an opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Despite early success, Lady Macbeth became the vehicle for a general denunciation of Shostakovich’s music  by the Communist Party in early 1936. After this, much of the music he wrote seems superficially celebratory – supposedly celebrating the great success of the Soviet government, but there is underlying discord. For me, this is the case with Shostakovich’s one piano quintet. The program notes state that this piece ‘lacks the autobiographical references and the touches of irony which can be identified in many of his other pieces’. I disagree. The third movement is a Scherzo – which suggests ‘playful’. But this is not entirely in joyful major chords – every-so-often it is slightly off key.  It is, in fact, one of my favourite pieces of music. The same happens in the energetic finale. It was wonderful to hear this executed by the Australian String Quartet and the fantastic technique of Konstantin Shamray. The program was rounded off with the Third Razumovsky Quartet of Beethoven.

Australian String Quartet

Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time

Another brilliant book by Julian Barnes, this is a fictitious exploration of Shostakovich. After reading it I thought, this is so much better than a ‘non fiction’ biography. Meticulously researched, Barnes can let us slip inside the mind of the composer and we are there with him, waiting at the lift for the police from the Power to arrive and arrest him, feeling the utter humiliation of being forced to denounce those artists he respected and admired, being blackmailed into joining the communist party.

In 1936, Shostakovich was denounced after Stalin was outraged by a performance of The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  In an editorial of Pravda, Shostakovich’s music was attacked for its ‘formalist’ tendencies, and the composer had to be ‘rehabilitated’.  Some sense of Shostakovich’s position comes through in Barnes’s quoting of Pasternak’s poem about Hamlet: ‘I am alone; all around me drowns in falsehood’ (page 111). When I read Solzhenitsyn some years ago I had seen the suffering in the gulags as that – bitter, human suffering. But this book has helped to explain a further dimension – when one is forced to betray oneself and to condone those things that one secretly abhors. One can respond with cynicism and irony, but how far can this go? The title of the book suggests that maybe an inner music is the only lasting truth: ‘What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music’ (page 125). Shostakovich saw Bach’s music as this kind of ‘real music’, which was ‘impregnable’.

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