On Tuesday, October 29, 2019 at 7:30pm at the Leighton House Museum in Holland Park, London, violinist Philippe Quint, cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, and pianist José Gallardo presented a programme which consisted of: Schnittke’s Suite in Old Style, Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in d minor, Op.94a and Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in e minor. Musicologist Stephen Johnson gave a short introduction to each piece which reflected on how music continued to bloom in Soviet Russia despite the devastation of World War Two and the oppression of Stalin’s regime, hence the title of the programme: Flowers in the Concrete. The talks were illustrated with slides of photos of the featured composers. The format of the concert is in line with the aims of ASPECT Chamber Music Series, which was founded by Irina Knaster in London in 2011. ASPECT presents a new concert format – one that transforms the traditional recital into an intimate, engaging, and thought-provoking blend of performance, speech, and image. One interesting aspect of the concert was that Quint played the 1708 “Ruby” Antonio Stradivari violin on loan to him through the generosity of The Stradivari Society. Not to be outdone Elschenbrich plays a cello made by Matteo Goffriller “Ex-Leonard Rose-Ex-Alfredo Piatti’ (Venice, 1693), which he has on private loan. These historic instruments are obviously in appropriate hands as the performances were of the highest quality.
The programme had an interesting design as it presented works by three composers who had quite varying relationships with the Soviet regime. Another thread in the programme was that all the pieces used to a certain extent techniques taken from the past. Schnittke’s Suite in Old Style for violin and piano was, I must admit, something of a surprise to me as I associate Schnittke with a more dissonant style, but this piece was tonal and melodic in a quite straightforward way. As Johnson explained, the piece was originally written for a children’s film, so no doubt this had some influence on its character. The second movement is a good illustration of Schnittke’s melodic gifts. However, the piece has an ambiguous ending as it just tails off without any definite conclusion.
Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in d minor has a somewhat complex background as the ideas were originally sketched for a flute sonata, but they emerge here in idiomatic and powerful violin writing largely typical of Prokofiev’s Romantic but modern style. Quint delivered a very compelling interpretation of this emotionally powerful work, which presents a considerable challenge for the violinist (and no doubt the pianist). Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union from Paris in 1936 but as Johnson explained, the reasons for this return, when Stalinist oppression was at its height, are not quite clear. One reason suggested by Johnson is that The Stalinist regime’s recent denunciation of Shostakovich had made the path clear for Prokofiev to become the Soviet Union’s leading composer: in Paris he was second to Stravinsky and in the USA to Rachmaninoff. Shostakovich’s relationship with the Soviet Regime has been discussed at great length, but what is undeniable is the depth of feeling in the final work in the programme, Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in e minor. The work seems to be deeply personal, something which does not always appear to be the case with Shostakovich’s more public works. There are definite signs of the influence of JS Bach here, not only in the final movement, which includes a substantial ground bass section, but also, though less obviously, in the very opening of the work. The work has to be counted among Shostakovich’s greatest chamber works. The performers did full justice to the wide range of emotions presented in this piece: the performance was deeply felt and had great rhythmic vitality, especially during the klezmar sections of the final movement, where Shostakovich wrote a very fine klezmar tune. A very fitting end to a thought-provoking programme performed to as near perfection as is possible. I went away feeling I had seen Soviet music from a new and interesting perspective.