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Peak Chamber Music at Hotchkiss School

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Oct 20th, 2017

Dmitry Yablonski, Fabio Witkowski, and Janna Gandelman

Legendary Dmitry Yablonksy, Music Director of Kiev Virtuosi and Conductor Laureate of Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and Janna Gandelman, Concertmaster of Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, performed at Katherine M. Elfers Hall at Hotchkiss School.

This extraordinary duo opened with Eight Pieces, Op. 39 by Reinhold Glière (1875-1956). Glière, from Kiev, had studied counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory under Sergei Taneyev. Taneyev discovered two private pupils for him in 1902: Nikolai Mayakovski and the eleven-year-old Sergei Prokofiev, whom Glière taught on Prokofiev's parental summer estate. Nikolai and Sergei became life-long friends. Glière dwelt in the old school of Russian melody, writing opera, ballet, and choral work, the latter being well-received after the 1917 Revolution, yet by 1928 both Glière and Mayakovski were dismissed from their posts at the Moscow Conservatory. Perhaps Glière’s German-Polish ancestry had something to do with this, but it appears that both men were considered academic elitists. When they were fired, all entrance exams were abolished and replaced by Communist Party connections, so that “music for the millions” would sweep society into uplifting ecstasy.

Eight Pieces (1910) is late Romantic Salon music. The melodic but somber cello dominated the opening Prelude, giving a sense of the immense, rolling expanse of Russia. In the next three dance movements Gandelman’s violin danced fetchingly above Yablonsky’s confident cello while sketching miniature portraits of upper class Russian life in the rural countryside. The fifth Movement Intermezzo appeared to mark the transition to urban life. The music became denser, lively, more intense. The seventh movement Scherzo was so infectious it made one want to dance. The concluding Etude championed polite drawing room wit as the ideal of civilized life.

They next played Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello (1922). Ravel said that this piece marked a turning point in his career by evoking a thinness of texture pushed to the extreme as harmonic seduction was renounced in favor of pure melody. Gandelman’s violin shaded delicate nuance with dynamic variations. Yablonsky’s cello laid a foundation that anchored the high-soaring violin, yet the cello often descended into near-entropy to be rescued by the violin, which adeptly recycled various folk tunes. Some have attacked Ravel for musical solipsism, yet in the end there is the sense that patterns in time repeat themselves in new ways with different contexts. To me this appears quite Hegelian. The past haunts the present, yet the present in some way always offers a new variation. Repetitions are not static cycles—they move more like the process of an evolving spiral. That is what I thought their performance evoked with subtlety.

Fabio Witkowski then joined the duo on piano for Astor Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (1970). The program had focused on melody and now we shift to Argentinian tango. The Four Seasons of Buenos Ares now exist in several different arrangements from solo piano to quintets to orchestras. Witkowski had performed this arrangement with cello and violin a little over five years ago with cellist Antonio Lauro Del Claro and violinist Rucker Bezerra de Queiroz. In the current performance, Witkowski achieved a deft balance between the cello and violin. (The temptation here is for the piano to bombastically blast the competition, something that did not occur at this inter-textured performance.) This four-part tango communicated an underlying portrait of the four seasons. This was not the cyclic energy of Vivaldi, yet each movement presented its own haunting rhythm, of which the piano was the soul. Witkowski played with more confident refinement than I have heard him play in the past.