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PROGRAM NOTES: Janine Jansen & NEw Generation ARtists in Concert

Saturday, December 30, 2023

At this concert, too, there is plenty of room for the new generation of musicians. And not just any young talent. Cellist Benjamin Kruithof and viola player Sào Soulez Larivière, for instance, have already been chosen for the ECHO Rising Star Programme of the 2024-2025 season. Why, they show in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet and the String Sextet ‘Souvenir de Florence’ by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, one of the great examples of the Russian composer who was constantly at odds with the authorities.

Briefly, the big difference between Russian and Western composers is undoubtedly the handling of emotion. Whereas in the Western culture, emotion was sublimated over the centuries and even enshrined in rhetoric in the Baroque era, Russians have been screaming with joy, misery and everything in between since the second half of the nineteenth century. Though they were also good at hiding behind a smokescreen of uplifting notes. In Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, for instance, there seems to be no trouble at all and the composer plays fabulously with elements of musical tradition. Shostakovich wrote the work, which he completed on 14 September 1940, at the request of the Beethoven Quartet, at the time the most prominent Russian chamber music ensemble. The foursome had premiered Shostakovich’s First String Quartet in 1938 and were so pleased with it that they immediately ordered a new work, preferably with a role for the composer as pianist. Although Shostakovich had already been through some cultural-political woes, he wrote a reasonably open-minded Piano Quintet. It turned out to be a hit as the work was unanimously praised – the Literaturnaya Gazeta spoke of ‘a portrait of our times’ – and was even good for the Stalin Prize in 1941. The associated cash prize of 100,000 roubles was made available to the less fortunate Muscovites by the composer-direct. The five-movement work has remained one of Shostakovich’s most played chamber music works ever since. And this is hardly surprising, as it contains everything that makes Shostakovich a Shostakovich. There is the play with tradition, but there is also the subcutaneous tension, the irony and the poignant pain of a composer trying to say more than those in power allow. The quintet begins very unusually like a ‘modern’ work by Bach with a prelude and a fugue. With the third movement, the mood turns and Shostakovich brings to mind Mendelssohn’s nimbleness with a quasi-airy Scherzo. In the fourth movement, the Shostakovich of squeaky blackboard crayons sounds, a slow movement in which all the world’s sorrows seem to be bound together. The final movement is then again an almost traditional sonata form with the expected seemingly light-hearted conclusion.

That Shostakovich shares a programme with Tchaikovsky is not surprising. Not only was Shostakovich greatly charmed by his late-nineteenth-century colleague, they also have much in common. For instance, both incorporated autobiographical elements into their work, were not averse to great (melo)drama and were both masters of juxtaposing and combining the higher arts (the influence of Bach, for instance) with the ‘lower’ arts such as folk tunes, operetta and film music. In that light, Souvenir de Florence is a misleading title for one of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s last great instrumental works. Indeed, anyone expecting plenty of Italian themes and opera melodies will be disappointed. Only in the first and slow second movements is there a modest reference to the melodies and vocalism of Italian opera. Otherwise, it is a thoroughly Slavic work with, in the last two movements, a melody, harmony and rhythm that leans heavily on Russian folk music and Russian dances. Tchaikovsky wrote the theme of the second movement while he was in Florence working on the opera Queen of Spades. That was one of the happiest periods of his life, hence the reference in the title. The work began in 1887 as a commission for a string sextet for the Chamber Music Society of St Petersburg. After Tchaikovsky wrote the first two movements, he was very dissatisfied with the work. In December 1891 and January 1892, he therefore revised it thoroughly and added the last two movements. In the finale, which, like the first movement, is a piece in sonata form, he also thought briefly about the members of the chamber music society, who were mainly from Germany; he inserted two episodes making it clear that he had an excellent command of counterpoint in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach.