Norfolk Chamber Consort: Schumann/Shostakovich
I very much looked forward to this opportunity to hear the Schumann and Shostakovich piano quintets—two pieces I knew, but had never heard live—in the Norfolk Chamber Consort’s second concert of the 2017-2018 season. The guest ensemble was the Jasper String Quartet, resident artists at Temple University in Philadelphia. If it is any indication of the caliber of the performances, fifteen seconds into the first piece my companion snatched my pen and scrawled “This is gorgeous!” on my program.
Before the concert, NCC Artistic Co-Director Andrey Kasparov delved into the history of the pieces, and gave the audience some food for thought on how the two pieces might relate to each other.
The premiere of Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat major in 1843 had a lasting effect on the genre. Everyone from Johannes Brahms and César Franck to the present has had to contend with Schumann's shadow during their own forays into piano quintets. A generation earlier, Franz Schubert's "Trout" quintet had its own transformative effect on the medium, notably his innovations in harmonic modulation and in bringing the piano into a more prominent melodic role. But while Schubert included a double bass in his ensemble, Schumann exchanged it for a second violin.
One look at the piano part for Schumann’s quintet and it is clear the difficulty level is closer to that of a concerto than a chamber piece. Robert's talented wife Clara was the intended pianist for many of his works, including this one. An accomplished virtuoso in her own right, Clara championed Robert's music before and after his death. Hampton Roads is lucky to have its very own Clara Schumann: Ukrainian-born pianist Oksana Lutsyshyn was our virtuoso for the evening.
Another thing gleaned from the score is the sheer density of the instrumentation. Page after page has all five musicians playing at the same time, with minimal dynamic instruction. However, had you been in attendance for the Jasper Quartet's performance with Lutsyshyn, you would never have known—not only did the ensemble uncover an intuitive feeling for the expressive shaping of the piece, they made it sound effortless.
I was pleasantly surprised at the extraordinary tempo the ensemble chose for the first movement, I. Allegro brillante. The primary theme of the first movement exemplifies the extroverted character of Schumann's masterwork. By way of contrast, the secondary theme is flowing and melodious. Following the repeated exposition is a short but tumultuous development section where the motives of the primary and secondary themes break down and intermingle. (The influences of Schubert and Beethoven are heard here.) The recapitulation overflows with passion, the ensemble highlighted the syncopated accents in the final coda enthusiastically. I especially loved the way cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel and pianist Lutsyshyn blended their timbres on the bass line.
Schumann toys with the listener's expectations throughout the somber second movement, II. In modo d’un marcia, Un poco largamente, with a litany of deceptive cadences. Once again I was impressed by the clean détaché articulations in the strings, which were showcased by the intimate acoustics of the venue. The ensemble displayed excellent communication as they tastefully shaped the romantic melodies and arpeggiated accompaniment with subtle tempo fluctuations.
The third movement is an ebullient scherzo-rondo, III. Scherzo: Molto vivace. The primary theme features upwardly-rising lines, delicately ornamented and packaged into neat classical phrases. The lyrical secondary theme makes a complementary foil for the stormy third theme, which goes around and around like a boat caught in a whirlpool. The joy on the performers' faces at their collective music-making was infectious.
The fourth movement, IV. Allegro ma non troppo, right away sets a mood of expectation, beginning not in E-flat major but on a subdominant C minor chord in the key of G minor—perhaps Schubert's influence? This movement takes the listener on an impassioned journey through forest and sky to reach the elusive tonic key. On the way, we are tormented with polyphonic flashes of the home key. The movement seems to be nearing its end without resolving this question, when the ensemble suddenly launches into a double fugue, combining the fourth movement's primary theme with the primary theme from the first movement. This contrapuntal extravaganza leads the piece to its true climax, and, with one final coda, we arrive home in the tonic key at last.
The Jasper Quartet achieves a delightful blend in their ensemble's overall tone with each player maintaining his or her individuality. Schumann's quintet is a perfect match for them, as it gives each instrument the chance to shine. Violinists Mr. Freivogel and Ms. Chonabayashi demonstrated theatricality and prodigious control over their upper registers. I marveled at cellist Ms. Freivogel’s evenness of tone over the full range of her cello even at breakneck speed. And violist Sam Quintal played with the same finesse and more, even with a splint on one of the fingers of his bow hand! Pianist Lutsyshyn effortlessly matched the Jasper Quartet's intensity note for note. In short—a dream team!
The second half of the concert was dedicated to Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940). This piece is a clever study in subverting expectation and flouting convention. In the 5-movement structure, the first and second movements make up a sub-cycle of prelude and fugue. From the beginning, the initial characters of these movements are completely reversed to what one might expect; the prelude starts loud and tumultuous, and the fugue, soft and introspective.
I. Prelude: Lento opens with an expressive piano solo, orchestral in nature, brought to life with brutal honesty by Armenian-American pianist Andrey Kasparov. Shortly, the strings take over with their counterproposal, and the piano fills the sound space above and below the stringed instruments, capturing them in a four-octave embrace. After this modal introduction, the mood changes to an atmosphere of expectation and motion. The viola is the star of this opening sub-cycle, its distinct tone the ideal conduit for the profound motivic lines.
In II. Fugue: Adagio, the fugue subject is a gentle, unadorned melody, voiced enchantingly by first violinist Freivogel on muted strings. One by one, the second violin, cello, and viola quietly fall into step behind the first violin, trailing gossamer lines that crisscross into each other's ranges. It is almost inevitable, then, that the piano materializes almost imperceptibly from the very depths below this crystalline sound world. I thought of Mussorgsky, and of ancient music inscribed on cave walls. The counterpoint becomes progressively more intense, distorting the simple melody with dissonance. The inescapable loss of innocence manifests in a restatement of the prelude's opening piano chord, still grounded on a low G, but every other pitch raised a half step. The uncertainty threatens to tear the air apart. With a yearning solo, the cello draws the group into a prolonged fugal denouement.
Then, without warning, the absurdly blithe III. Scherzo: Allegretto begins and the spell is broken, but what else would Shostakovich use to reset the listener's ear after fifteen-plus minutes of brooding reflection? (This juxtaposition of consequential and inconsequential brings to mind Shostakovich's Prelude and Fugue in D-flat major, Op. 87 for piano solo, which paired a fatuous prelude with a fugue of explosive intensity.) Amidst flamenco, whirling klezmer tunes and a touch of Saint-Saëns, the whole quintet spins like a broken record. The scherzo culminates in a maddening coda of incessant fortissimo punctuations, enlivened by the quintet's brilliant energy - the highlight of the evening!
IV. Intermezzo: Lento begins with pizzicato footfalls in the cello, harkening back to the second movement fugue. Another play against expectation—there is far more depth to this "Intermezzo" than the title suggests. In fact, it is the first movement of the quintet to use a traditional sonata form, though on first listening, one may not notice, thanks to Shostakovich's camouflage. The first violin sets the mood with a determined yet hopeful solo, soon joined by the viola in a touching dialogue. But after several pairings of strings in progressively passionate outbursts, the piano takes over the endless march, matching the tone of the cello pizzicato. The strings' harmonics cut through the infinite atmosphere like piercing rays of light. The ensemble is to be commended for cultivating an organic sense of pacing in this far-reaching journey across snowcapped mountains, barren steppes, empty skies…The language of this movement reflected the modal harmonies of the first and second movements; I heard hints of Schnittke, Prokofiev and even Ravel.
V. Finale: Allegretto is unmistakably Shostakovich, with his distinctive scale-like melodies accentuated with octave displacements, and that same tonal latitude. It also displays his two-faced compositional nature; on the surface, the movement gives off an odd happiness, but the middle section betrays a darker intention. Tucked between a folk tune and a banal march is a cryptic reprise of harrowing material from earlier in the work. And yet, as mysteriously as it comes, it dissipates and is not referred to again. By the movement's lullaby-like ending, I wonder if it ever happened at all.
I did muse on how the two quintets on the NCC program could possibly relate to each other, besides their common instrumentation and the first letters of the composers' names. But as Shostakovich's work unfolded, I started to hear parallels in his and Schumann’s sound worlds. Compare Schumann's measured, détaché phrases with Shostakovich's enigmatic pizzicato footsteps, and suddenly these disparate quintets are not so far apart.