Janacek: String Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata"
Beethoven: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3
Shostakovich: Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 - Aaron Wunsch
There's nothing like a little bit (or even better, a lot) of high quality live music to brighten up a miserable, cold and wet, November Monday. So yesterday evening I headed straight to the Upper West Side's cozy Advent Lutheran Church for an intimate Music Mondays evening with the Enso Quartet. The much-acclaimed 15-year-old ensemble was scheduled to play an appealing smorgasbord of beloved and lesser-known works by celebrated composers and could have hardly found a more captive audience.
After an unofficial Czech festival at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon, it seemed like my Monday evening would decidedly be Russian-flavored, starting with Janacek's "Kreutzer Sonata", which was inspired by Leo Tolstoy's novella "The Kreutzer Sonata", which itself incorporates Beethoven's famed "Kreutzer Sonata" in its plot. Since the story ends with a murder, it was going to be followed by Puccini's elegiac "Chrysanthemums", because it kind of made sense after all. Then we had Beethoven and his particularly upbeat String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, which was dedicated to Russian Prince Andrei Razumovsky, and finally the big centerpiece of the evening, the Stalin-prize winning Piano Quintet by Shostakovich, which could not be more Russian even if it tried. Davai!
Starting a concert by a particularly challenging work can be considered counter-intuitive, but on the other hand, everything is likely to go down smoothly after it. Janacek's "Kreutzer Sonata" deals with the painful theme of domestic abuse and ends with a husband killing his wife in an act of jealous rage. After experiencing Janacek's "Tutras Bulba", which features three wartime deaths, the day before, I admit that I briefly wondered about Janacek's apparent fixation on macabre tales. But the fact of the matter is, he does them very well, and the unapologetically dissonant score, peppered with passionate élans, seething quietness and violent outbursts, is probably one of the most unique musical studies in mental instability and its dreadful consequences. The Enso Quartet resolutely met the challenge, unafraid of producing gritty sounds or disturbing images, and delivered a starkly emotional performance.
What could bring better solace after a brutal murder that some stunningly lyrical "Chrysanthemums", courtesy of Italy's premier melody-maker Giacomo Puccini? This delightful little gem packed a big soothing punch in its few minutes, proving that a lot can be beautifully said with the right notes and the right players. We obviously had them last night.
Then we went back in time for Beethoven's String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, a superb piece from his middle period, when he had more or less come to terms with his hearing loss and decided to move on to even bigger and better things than before. With an inconspicuous opening and a grand finale, it bursts with sunny radiance and self-confident optimism, and kept the ensemble busy expertly weaving a superb tapestry from the spectacularly wide range of sounds.
Fully on Russian soil this time, we moved to the Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 by Shostakovich, for which the Enso Quartet was joined by dedicated pianist Aaron Wunsch, who also happens to be the unstoppable artistic director of Music Mondays. It cannot be denied that this piano quintet may sound a bit conventional from an artist well-known as a major figure of Modernism, which would incidentally explain its unabated popularity, but it is nevertheless a masterfully shifting, deeply expressive and all-around musically satisfying composition. And let's not forget that having the Soviet government keep a watchful eye on your every move does not exactly encourage you to take unreasonable chances of any kind. Finally, the poised performance of it we got to enjoy last night categorically showed that one could stay politically out of trouble and still create meaningful work. So there.