Under the apt rubric “Dark Passions,” the Concert Program II of the Music@Menlo Festival for Tuesday, July 20, at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton offered some marvelous ensemble, deftly rendered. Music by Shostakovich, Dohnanyi, Mahler, and Arensky provided potent emotional fare to an evening that explored the introspective, often intensely superheated aspects of Romantic and post-Romantic sensibilities, rife with intimations of mortality, anguished yearning, and cosmic irony.
The program began with the first, relative rarity: the Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 8 (1923). Even for a precocious St. Petersburg Conservatory student, the work exhibits a remarkable economy of means, exploiting as it does a three-note motif – stated by cellist David Finckel – whose half steps (in through-composed form) found responsive echo from violinist Nicolas Dautricourt, before moving to the piano, Michael Brown, who performed true yeoman’s service in the course of the program’s first half. We could feel the ardent search by the composer for his own, tragic voice, here realized in obsessive tones that became, alternately, percussive and lyrical, sincere and ironical, those very character traits that defined Shostakovich permanently. We recall that Shostakovich had been recovering from tuberculosis at age sixteen: if the work projects a surreal and “grotesque” fascination with mortality, it seems natural enough. But the composer had also found love, in the presence of one Tatyana Glivenko, so the music may in some sense embrace the same eerie emotions we find in Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”
We then proceeded to larger ensemble in the form of Erno von Dohnanyi’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in E-flat Minor, Op. 26 (1914), an introspective work that looks to Schubert, Franck, and Fauré as its sonic models. The totally integrated principals – Ani Kavafian and Nicolas Dautricourt, violins; Paul Neubauer, viola; Clive Greensmith, cello; and Michael Brown, piano – collaborated in refined harmony as its often turbulent, first movement music wended its circuitous way toward a distant C Major resolution. The persistent tremolo motions instilled a sense of persistent unrest, no matter the urgency of the dolce second theme, intoned at one point by an absolutely sensuous viola, courtesy of Paul Neubauer.
Neubauer set the tone for the ensuing Intermezzo, an angular waltz that often exploded into more frantic tempos and whimsies. This concentrated contest between fierce, internal emotional chaos and instrumentally refined playing only added to the colossal tension of the music, the original waltz’s having been transmogrified into any number of ecstasies and descents. The last movement, Moderato, seethes with irony, given Dohnanyi’s penchant – via Franck – for cyclic form and contrapuntal procedures. While the cello introduced the main theme, followed in ascending order by the complement of strings, Michael Brown’s piano proffered a chorale tune, again one of Franck’s compositional gambits. With the reintroduction of former motifs, the piece soon reflected on its own progress, turbulent, even adumbrating the 1914 currents that would shatter the civilized world. The repose and serenity (in the tonic major) that burst forth at the conclusion of the work may have proved too pat, too contrived – even in the best sense – to be completely convincing, but as a work of musical craft, the piece made an unforgettable impression.
Another concert rarity – Gustav Mahler’s 1878 Piano Quartet in A Minor – appeared before us, here wrought by Wu Han, piano; Paul Huang violin; Matthew Lipman, viola; and David Finckel, cello. In one movement, much like the Schubert C Minor Quartett-satz, the work moves in sonata-form, utilizing three themes that revolve around minor tonalities. Mahler’s desire that this piece should express “resolve” and “passionately rhythmic flexibility” coalesced in the playing of violinist Paul Huang, who held forth with a fiercely fast vibrato and a glorious cadenza that erupted into a microcosm of the work’s prior evolution. Often gloomy and ominous, the music might have anticipated the opening of Schoenberg’s sextet, Verklaerte Nacht. Given Mahler’s singular reputation for the colossal in music, this moment of concentrated intimacy – only published as late as 1973 – reveals a fine sense of instrumental balance in a work of feverish commitment.
The last work of the program, Anton Arensky’s four-movement Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 32 (1894), took us back to the over-riding ethos for this Menlo season: “Russian Reflections.” The three finely-honed instrumentalists – Gloria Chien, piano; Paul Huang, violin; and Clive Greensmith, cello – made of this elegiac work an epic statement in terms not entirely obliged to Tchaikovsky as the model on whom Arensky relied for inspiration. True, like Tchaikovsky, who had dedicated his own A Minor Trio to “the memory of a great artist” (Nicholas Rubinstein), Arensky celebrates in this work the passing of Karl Davidoff (d. 1889), the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and founder of the Russian school of cello performance. At several moments, the music “devolves” into a duet for cello and piano, at which the violin part seems an afterthought. As one might well expect, Clive Greensmith — of the Tokyo String Quartet — executed his part with admirable taste.
Despite the “favored” position of the cello part, what defined the music this evening were the consistently ardent melodies Arensky provides, elegiac in the Tchaikovsky mode, but no less arresting and fluid in the manner of a Russian Mendelssohn. In fact, the Mendelssohn emphasis on impish lightness and quicksilver dynamics imbued the second movement, Scherzo: Allegro molto, whose “fluid” moments might have been termed an “aquarelle.” The Trio section attained a swaggering confidence that well raised this work beyond any mere “salon music.” Lastly, the Finale, in which the two strings played with muted instruments, presented a G Minor dirge much in the Tchaikovsky tradition. Nostalgic but rife with large, sweeping gestures, the music gathered up prior movements’ motifs into a subdued, respectful memorial to a fallen idol that still managed, in the coda, to find the power of renewal.