RUSSIAN MUSICIANS BRING SOUL TO SHOSTAKOVICH

by Lawrence Budmen

Few composers musically portrayed the agonies of human suffering in the 20th century like Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Repeatedly denounced by the Soviet regime, Shostakovich wrote music of brooding intensity, frightening violence, and harmonic astringency. He was one of the creative giants and one of the most distinctive, original voices of his time. In his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies Shostakovich gave musical life to the siege of Leningrad and the battle of Stalingrad -- two of Russia's greatest tragedies and ultimate triumphs. In his Thirteenth Symphony the composer set Yevtuchenko's poem Babi-Yar which vividly dramatized Russian anti-Semitic atrocities. Shostakovich's post World War II Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Op 67, is a bleak, driven work that was inspired by the inhumanity of the Holocaust. A dramatic, deeply emotional performance of that masterwork formed the climax of Festival Miami's Evening of Russian Music on 28 September 2005 at the University of Miami Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables, Florida, USA.

One of Shostakovich's angriest works, the Trio paints a desolate musical landscape. From the sparse textures of the opening Andante to the fierce, headlong fury of the Allegro non troppo (Scherzo) and the passionate, somber requiem of the profoundly moving Largo, this score sings deep from within the Russian soul. In the final Allegretto Shostakovich turns to a thematic motive that Nazi concentration camp guards forced inmates to sing as they dug their own graves. This is music of utter desolation. A less than musically impeccable, totally committed performance of this work would fail to communicate the composer's agony, conscience stricken angst, and deep humanity. Pianist (and UM music professor) Paul Posnak joined Russian artists Sviatoslav Moroz (violinist) and Semyon Fridman (cellist) for a briskly pensive and intense performance. They did not attempt to prettify the music. The painful resignation of the slow movement and the darkly rhythmic dance of death of the finale were imbued with fire driven momentum. Posnak's lithe, brilliant pianism, Fridman's amber toned, aristocratic cello, and Moroz's wiry Gypsy violin brought burning intensity of the most kinetic variety to this performance. A singular artistic vision in a one of a kind, truly memorable interpretation!

The Vitebsk Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano by Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is one of that composer's few overtly Jewish scores. Born of Russian parents in Brooklyn (his Russian connection to this program), Copland devoted most of his career to forging a distinctly American compositional voice. A student of Nadia Boulanger in Paris during the 1920s, Copland was exposed to the wildly divergent forms of musical modernism -- represented at opposite poles by Stravinsky and the Russian school and Schoenberg and the atonalists. His early works were fiercely dissonant and unrelentingly modernist (ie the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, Piano Sonata, Dance Symphony, and the orchestral suite Music for the Theater). These pieces reveal a very different Copland from the Americana scores like Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. The 1929 Vitebsk Trio finds Copland at the climactic phase of his modernist period. Based on a Hasidic theme the score unfolds in angular, argumentative phrases. The final, vigorous Allegro vivace recreates a folk dance -- celebration after a heated debate. Posnak is an expert on this work. Several years ago he recorded it (on Naxos) with violinist Peter Zazofsky and cellist Ross Harbaugh. With vividly individual contributions by Moroz and Fridman, Posnak gave an authoritative performance of visceral impact.

Balancing these 20th century chamber music masterpieces, the Russian artists offered a series of salon works and encore vignettes. Reinhold Glière (1875-1956) began his career as one of the brightest of the young generation of composers in Czarist Russia and concluded it as an official 'People's Artist' of the Soviet Union. A superb instrumental colorist, Glinka fashioned well craft scores replete with haunting, inspired melodies. His early Morceaux for Violin and Cello Op 39 features the kind of aristocratic thematic material that would be played in the drawing room of Imperial Russian nobility. The Canzonetta is an elegant, breezy salon piece while the graceful Gavotte is utterly sparkling and irresistible. Moroz's fiddling was bright and smooth while Fridman brought gorgeous tone to Glière's richly resonant cello writing.

Tchaikovsky's Sentimental Waltz Op 51 No 6 is quintessentially Russian -- noble and broadly aristocratic. Usually played by violinists, cellist Fridman brought velvet tone and elegant phrasing to this wonderful vignette. Hommage to Albeniz by award winning Russian composer Rodion Schedrin (born 1932) is an acerbic commentary on the Spanish composer's uniquely pianistic Flamenco voice. Posnak's bristling virtuosity and Fridman's deeply probing musicianship produced stellar music making. In the beautiful Andante from Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata Op 19 Fridman's overly fast tempo robbed the music of some of its brooding lyricism. Impromptu by Alexander Arutunyan (born 1920) is a fiery Armenian showpiece -- played con amore by Fridman and Posnak.

Violinist Moroz worked utter magic in Tziganov's famous 1962 transcription of three movements from Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake. From the poignant yearning and sweet toned violin maple syrup of the Black and White Swan Pas de Deux to the brilliant, Magyar fireworks of the Russian Dance, Moroz played with that rounded Russian vibrato and fleet pyrotechnics that spell star power. Posnak provided rapid fire support. The audience erupted into a well deserved, cheering ovation.

Three splendid artists offered an evening of rarely heard musical gems. Copland's tribute to his cultural roots and Shostakovich's grim neo-realist memorial to the greatest tragedy of the last century were the memorable summit of a terrific concert!


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