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High Lyricism at Music Mountain

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Aug 27th, 2018

Muneko Otani, Jennifer Leshnower, Paul Katz, Elizabeth Anderson, Ah Ling Neu

The Cassatt String Quartet offered an unusual program at Music Mountain in Falls Village last Sunday. Anyone who has heard them before knows that the first reason to hear them play remains violinist Muneko Otani and the second reason is to hear Elizabeth Anderson on cello.

The program opened with Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet #2 in D major (1881). This late Romantic work often leans into bland textures yet its Romanticism is redeemed by a discipline Classicism. It is generally thought that this work memorializes Borodin’s devotion to his wife; this was a really happy marriage much like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s. Written twenty years after Alexander met Ekaterina it revisits the sensibility of Ivan Turgenev’s 1859 lyrical and musically inclined novel, A House of Gentlefolk. Composed while on summer vacation in a rural dacha, the quartet’s gentle, rolling romantic, melodic motifs become most lyrical and memorable in the third movement: a Nocturne that expands personal romance (without descending into sentimental terrain) as it exfoliates intimate love onto the nocturnal landscape where the audience revels in tranquil moonlight. This movement is often thought to be a showcase for the cello and can be overdone, but Anderson kept to the tender intimacy that the composer wished to evoke. (The Nocturne achieved commercialization in the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet—with debatable results.)  Otani aptly captured the soaring lyrical lines of the piece, especially in the first and fourth movements.

The real reason I came was to hear the next piece: String Quartet # 8 in C minor, Op. 110 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1960). Shostakovich went to Dresden to write the cinema score for the German-Russia co-production of the film Five Days, Five Nights, a drama about recovering master paintings amid the rubble of Dresden as returning Germans reluctantly begin to co-operate with the Russian effort to save great art. While Shostakovich’s lamentation is officially supposed to be about the English fire-bombing of Dresden, it is really about the German Jewish Holocaust and Jewish purges in Russian during the 1950’s. The first two movements employ with subtlety Jewish laments amid a welter of self-quotation from Shostakovich’s own work, as listed in a letter to his friend Isaak Glikman; he also wrote to Glikman that while composing the piece “my tears flowed as abundantly as urine after downing half a dozen beers,” while he composed the quartet, thus unconsciously recalling Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s tears on his cheeks when he viewed the performance of his only opera in his famous Autobiography.  

The quartet opens with Shostakovich’s monogram D-S-C-H and quickly quotes from Beethoven’s fugue in Op. 131, then self-quotes Shostakovish’s First, Fifth, Eighth, and Tenth Symphonies, the Piano Concerto, Cello Concerto, an opera aria from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; he also alludes to Wagner’s funeral march in Gotterdammerung and the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique symphony, according to Brian Morton and others. What was marvelous about this performance in Gordon Hall was the lack of self-consciousness in the presentation. Otani on first violin captured the anger and lamentation with deep feeling that somehow evoked a transcendent aesthetic in fierce lament. Again Anderson was delicious with deep emotion and distantly sardonic when necessary.

This was also a self-lament for the composer with the ever-ready packed suitcase at the front door in case of arrest, the composer who could not publish his collection of Jewish songs until Stalin died, the composer who wrote thinking that nearly each composition he wrote would be his last, as friends (Mojsiej S. Weinberg and others) and relatives disappeared into the gulag, never to be heard of again. Here is a brief, informative link.

This was a performance to be treasured and remembered.

After intermission the Cassatt Quartet performed Cello Quintet in C major, Op. 163 by Franz Schubert (1828), his last major work before his death at the age of 31. I thought this an interesting choice because like the other two works, it was a combination of private emotion and public statement. I had heard it played just two weeks ago.

Paul Katz, founder of the Cleveland Quartet, joined the Cassatt Quartet for this performance. Katz is a great cello player and the best cello string plucker I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. On the whole, this was an impressive performance, yet I thought it to be overly dominated by Otani and Katz. This work demands a more balanced give-and-take between instruments, especially the two cellos. This lack of balance and parity of nuance eventually obscured the public satire encoded in the fifth and final movement. Some of the recurring refrains sounded mechanical rather than invested with lyricism. They were no longer playing Schubert, but were playing their own vision of their own instruments to the diminishment of the other instruments. This became an exhibition of two highly talented artists showing what heights they could reach, rather than working with others to capture the more personal nuance of Schubert, as well as his peculiar juxtaposition of high and low styles in the same work.