Chamber players engage century-spanning Russian program

The Williams Chamber Players treated a filled Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall to a dynamic program of Russian chamber music on Friday evening. Entitled “Russian Chamber Music: From Czar Alexander III to Gorbachev,” the concert ran the musical gamut from the nineteenth-century romanticism of Tchaikovsky to Alfred Schnittke’s 1989 “Piano Quartet,” with common national and thematic threads tying the program together.

The concert opened with the Schnittke quartet, with new Artist-in-Residence Joanna Kurkowicz on violin, Susan St. Amour on viola, Nathaniel Parke on cello and pianist Doris Stevenson. Before performing the piece, which was based on 24 bars of a never-finished Mahler scherzo, the musicians pointed out key passages to help the audience understand and appreciate the highly dissonant and distorted-sounding music better. Kurkowicz likened the experience of listening to Schnittke’s quartet to “viewing an Expressionist painting of someone where you can’t see exactly who the person is.”

This was an apt description for the piece. The four instruments played in very close harmonies, producing a rich texture of dissonant sound and agitated energy. At times, the musicians played the same line, but one note off from one another, creating the sensation of a distortion wave. Kurkowicz’s intensity added to the dynamism of the performance as she dug deep into the strings to get all possible sound out of her instrument. After a section of sliding glissandos terminated by a broken chord, the piece shifted to a more lyrical statement of the melody and a calmer mood, before ending on a dark note of unrelieved tension.

A similar thread of tension ran through Shostakovich’s “Sonata in D Minor for Cello and Piano.” Though less abrasive than Schnittke’s quartet, the Shostakovich cello sonata used subtle dissonance to add color to complicate the melodic texture. Rhythm played a large role in the piece, generating an almost relentless energy and forward motion, as well as a slight comic air.

The Allegro non troppo movement opened with rich warm tones from cellist Douglas Moore in dialogue with a lively, breezy piano line from Stevenson. Expressing the piece’s wry humor, Stevenson introduced a quick, repeated rhythmic idea, which Moore took up and developed in the cello line. Moore showcased the full range of his instrument during the course of the movement, from the wistful quality of a passage on the A-string to the dark richness of the lower register.

After the lyrical nostalgia evoked by first movement, the Allegro was playful, verging on frenetic. Quick off-the-string cello double-stops and rapid-fire repeated rhythms in the piano created the snowballing energy and off-kilter melodies of an over-wound-up music box. In another section, Moore’s hand slid all over the fingerboard in a series of wild glissandos, while Stevenson played a similar figure under a lively melody.

In marked contrast to the frenetic second movement, the Largo began with the deadened sustained low tones of the muted cello, reminiscent of the understated beginning of Shos-takovitch’s String Quartet No. 8. Moore used no vibrato, and the piano solemnly added only a few tolling notes. Removing the mute, Moore elongated the notes and added vibrato, building to a climax of a plaintive singing melody in the upper register before pulling back to another muted passage. Stevenson’s fingers softly played a delicate line at the high end of the keyboard, with parts highlighted by octaves.

A bombastic Allegro closed out the piece with a lively rondeau highlighted by dissonance and interlocking rhythms. Stevenson led the way into the movement, playing the quirky theme, which the cello picked up and expanded in each variation. The piano line rose and fell like a fountain, while the cello built up to a series of trills. After the final restatement of the theme, the cello and piano closed the piece with two pert chords.

After the intermission, the ensemble of Kurk-owicz, violinist Miriam Shapiro, violists St. Amour and Ronald Gorevic and cellists Ronald Feldman and Moore took the stage to perform Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence for String Sextet. The depth of the group was evident in their control of dynamics, richness of sound and subtle finesse of tone and texture. The combination of the ensemble’s skillfulness with Tchaikovsky’s signature over-the-top, yet cathartic, romanticism made the piece a thrilling and satisfying finale.

The Allegro con spiritu lived up to its sprightly appellation. Like the Shost-akovich cello sonata, rhythmic intensity animated the movement with an inner dynamism, which was generated by interlocking passages across the sections. Though the piece showcased the expressive range of the violin, all instruments were given the chance to shine. Kurkowicz’s violin engaged in musical dialogue with Feldman’s cello and then Gorevic’s viola. All of the instruments came together to build up to the moment of highest tension, which was heightened by dramatic dynamic swells. After a more relaxed waltz-like section, which featured the violas, the musicians made a rapid accelerando to the end, driving the tempo faster and faster until the final chords.

The heart-wrenchingly beautiful Adagio cantabile e con moto highlighted the robust sound of the group, filling Brooks-Rogers with their rich, warm tone. The movement began with Kurkowicz’s violin singing over the rest of the instruments’ pizzicato, almost like a ballet pas de deux melody. Feldman joined Kurkowicz, playing his lyrical line with a heartfelt sweetness. The other instruments came in one at a time, each adding another layer to the wall of sound. In a sudden shift in character, the musicians jumped into a section of quick scalar runs and sudden dynamic swells. Feldman’s cello reintroduced the languid opening theme, giving way to a gorgeous solo viola line, played soulfully by Gorevic.

In perhaps my favorite musical moment of the evening, the instruments, their bows moving in perfect unison, incrementally increased the dynamics and the emotional intensity to a fever pitch until the poignancy gave way to the power of the major key. It was as if the sadness and pain expressed earlier in the movement was not in vain and that a positive resolution was in sight. With a sense of triumphant calm, Gorevic’s viola solo over pizzicato accompaniment brought the movement to a close.

In a nice link to the previous movement, the warm voice of the viola mysterious opened the Allegretto moderato. Kurkowicz’s violin took up the melody as dynamics and energy built. Rhythm was the driving force of this movement, and the instruments’ exchange of rapid runs and rhythmic figures around the half-circle seating arrangement created an interlocking texture.

The Allegro vivace began with pairs of instruments engaging in musical dialogue with one another. Building to a sustained unison note, instruments dissonantly broke off by half steps, an idea which linked Souvenir de Florence with the twentieth-century pieces performed earlier in the program, before launching into a full-blown fugal development section. After a restatement of the theme, the movement accelerated into the coda as the musicians worked their way higher and higher into the upper range of their instruments, building in dynamic and emotional intensity, before ending the movement on three unison notes solidly in the lower register.