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Music

The Apollo Trio at the Meeting House, New Marlborough play Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Dvořák

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Dmitri Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich

The Apollo Trio at the Meeting House, New Marlborough
Saturday, September 17
Curtis Macomber, violin; Michael Kannen, cello; Marija Stroke, piano

Beethoven – Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 44
Shostakovich – Trio in E Minor, Op. 67
Dvořák – Trio in E Minor, Op. 90, “Dumky”

This recital was part of New Marlborough’s enterprising “Music and More” series, directed by Harold F. Lewin and now in its twentieth year, which has certainly succeeded in its stated intention of “bringing a diverse and distinguished group of authors, actors, musicians and films to the Berkshires.”

Beethoven completed the Variations, Op. 44 in 1792, long before he undertook the task of setting the world to rights. It is remarkable that a year after Mozart’s death and while Haydn was regaling London with a succession of masterpieces, this young man of twenty-two could write music that sounds like Beethoven and could not be mistaken for a product of either of the two older masters. The variations are by turns elegant, soulful, sparkling and exuberant, and the performance characterized them beautifully.

So much has been written about Shostakovich’s relations with Soviet officialdom that it is very difficult for those of us who have been deeply involved in his music and the controversies surrounding it to hear a piece like the E Minor Trio without experiencing biographical implications that go beyond the expression of grief for the untimely death of a friend. When Solomon Volkov’s Testimony was published in 1979 it seemed to give a true picture of a composer who suffered under a cruel regime, went in constant fear for his life and liberty and had to adapt his style in such a way that it would convey his true feelings to those who could understand while remaining acceptable to the communist establishment. People who had known Shostakovich, including his children, Maxim and Irina, and the great conductor Evgeny Mravinsky, endorsed Volkov’s reports but some time later it turned out that there were grave doubts about the authenticity of the book. Laurel Fay and Richard Taruskin were among those who asserted that it had been cobbled together from a variety of dubious sources and that people like Volkov and Iain Macdonald who purport to find political messages embedded in Shostakovich’s scores are doing a disservice to the composer. It is a historical fact, however, that Shostakovich’s music was condemned twice, in no uncertain terms, by the Soviet political establishment and that, in view of the deaths and disappearances of so many of his contemporaries, he had every reason to doubt his own survival. His music is powerful enough to make its points without the assistance of biographical details but there are times when its disjunctions, grotesqueries and sheer violence cry out for some extra-musical explanation.

No doubt there were many in the audience who were in the happy position of being able to hear this marvelous performance without any such preoccupations but it can hardly be denied that the composer often made it difficult to take his music at face value. The tendency to play around with the audience’s expectations and not always to say exactly what you mean goes back at least as far as Haydn, but the old master of Esterhazy usually had a twinkle in his eye and, unlike some later composers, was more interested in writing good music than in expressing his feelings about life and destiny. The result, of course, was that his music expresses his feelings about life, if not destiny, quite accurately, but that’s another story.

At the risk of continuing to offend those who, like Stravinsky, consider that “music is, by its very nature, powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature…”, I must say that I agree with the writer of the excellent program notes for this concert: “Much of the work carries the weight of despair and anguish, and as with so much of Shostakovich’s output, even the ostensibly lighthearted sections are tinged with irony and sarcasm.” The humor is of the grim variety. The coupling of the sublime and the ridiculous that Haydn accomplished in such a humanitarian way that it offended only the more conservative German critics becomes in Shostakovich a painful conjunction of grief and cynicism – grief for the human condition in general and as manifested in the composer’s particular situation, and cynicism about the powers that are supposed to control the State for the good of the people.

Shostakovich, who described the reputedly Jewish Ivan Sollertinsky as his dearest friend, started the E Minor Trio in 1943 at a time when he was working on the completion of an opera by a Jewish student, Venyamin Fleishman, who had been killed in the siege of Leningrad in 1941. The opera, Rothschild’s Violin, was based on a story by Chekhov and set in an Eastern European shtetl. Jewish culture, extended to embrace the experience of all oppressed humanity, was very close to Shostakovich’s heart and remained a very strong influence on his music. This is evidenced in his settings of Jewish folk songs, his frequent references to Jewish music and in the Thirteenth Symphony, which sets words of Yevgeny Yevtushenko commemorating the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar in the Ukraine in 1941. The poet had been moved by a new outbreak of anti-Semitism in the USSR and asserted that this made him ashamed to be Russian. He continues, “I am Russian. In my veins there does not flow a single drop of Jewish blood, but in the face of all this, I am a Jew.” Shostakovich clearly shared this sentiment.

The first movement of the trio was completed shortly after Sollertinsky’s death on February 11, 1944 and the anguish and anger conveyed by the work are not only for Sollertinsky, who had also been attacked by the authorities, but also for suffering people everywhere, for whom the Jewish flavor of some of the music stands as a symbol.

The opening shows that Shostakovich has something special to say. To begin a piano trio with a theme in high harmonics is, to say the least, unusual, and to give it to the cello, accompanied in canon by muted violin and piano in its bass register only adds to the eeriness of the effect. The theme appears in a succession of different moods from bleak and bitter to frantic and feverish and this movement, which makes no concessions to comfortable listening is followed by a short, hectic scherzo that is at best a grim joke and ends with startling suddenness. A succession of eight slow somber chords follows on the piano and, in repetition, becomes the basis of a heart-rending threnody for the cello and violin. This dies away and is followed without a break by a jarring change of mood into a dance that arguably has the same kind of purpose as the Italian tarantella, which is supposed, when danced energetically enough, to counteract the poison of the tarantula spider. The presence of Russian folk melodies and Jewish themes makes it quite clear what kind of poison the dancer is dealing with and the work closes in a mood of  unaccepted resignation with reminiscences of the opening theme and the eight-chord sequence from the third movement.

The work was played with absolute conviction and in an atmosphere of great concentration shared by performers and audience alike.

The Dvořák “Dumky” Trio, played after the intermission certainly produced a mood of greater relaxation, at least amongst the audience, but this is no reflection on the stature of the work. My dictionaries tell me that the dumka was originally a Ukrainian folk ballad with the character of a lament and that the interpolation of faster, dancelike episodes took place in 19th century Bohemia. Be that as it may, Dvořák wrote quite a number of such movements and when, as Donald Tovey remarked, “an elegiac slow movement develops a tendency to dance on its grandmother’s grave” it seems natural to call it a dumka.

Consisting as it does of a succession of six “Dumky,” Dvořák’s Op. 90 is more unconventional in appearance, although not in essence, than Shostakovich’s Op. 67. I can think of only two other works consisting of six or more movements of ostensibly uniform character; one is Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross and the other is Shostakovich’s 15th Quartet, which consists of six adagios – “sorrow drained to the bitterest dregs,” as one writer described it.

There was for a long time a tendency to present Dvořák as much more rustic and unsophisticated than he really was. From the Fifth Symphony and the Op. 51 Quartet onwards he showed the ability to create cogent, organic musical forms with both a buoyant spirit and an awareness of the sorrow at the heart of existence. This awareness is one of the fundamental properties of folk music all over the world and although Dvořák rarely used actual folk melodies, their style and spirit can be heard and felt in much of his output. The Apollo Trio performed the “Dumky” Trio with a fine mixture of tenderness and brio and the work’s joyous final flourish, which was followed by a well-deserved ovation, didn’t erase the impression of a journey through many moods, sometimes conveying the possibility of heartbreak rather than Shostakovian anger, bitterness or desperation.

Keith Francis

About Keith Francis

Keith Francis was born in Bury St. Edmunds, England and educated at Cambridge University, where he specialized in atomic physics and was a cantor in his college chapel. He worked as an engineer at Bristol Aircraft before joining the faculty of the Crypt School, Gloucester, where he taught physics for six years. He came to this country in 1964 and was on the faculty of the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan for 31 years, starting as a teacher of science and mathematics, but soon taking on the responsibilities of Choral Director and teacher of music history. Since his retirement he has written several novels, a memoir, The Education of a Waldorf Teacher, and a history of atomic science, and has founded and led the Fifteenth Street Singers for the past eight years. His recent essays and lectures can be found at southerncrossreview.org.

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