Ring Tones Vs. Shostakovich
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
This year commemorates Shostakovich’s 100th birthday, and there has been much sound and fury this season in New York. But for those of us who find the Russian composer’s symphonies and string quartets a tad too self-involved, Sunday provided an opportunity to hear arguably his finest effort, the 24 Preludes and Fugues.
The composer intended for these works to be presented as a cycle, but he himself never played them that way in concert. He normally opted instead for a set of three or so as part of a chamber evening of his own works. Sunday afternoon at Town Hall, the Ukrainian pianist Konstantin Lifschitz presented a dozen of these jewels and planned to offer the other half of the cycle that evening. And he did it all for free.
It was difficult not to empathize with Mr. Lifschitz. This was the first time he had ever performed this cycle before the public, and the crowd treated him abominably.
The ideal of bringing classical music to the great unwashed at no charge frays rather badly at its edges in this place. Although an announcer introduced the program by asking that all cell phones be disengaged, there were no less than six interruptions during the opening piece in C major; Mr. Lifschitz’s well-crafted, quiet ending was stomped upon by a spirited rendition of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”
The second prelude and fugue, the A minor was virtually drowned by continuing electronic assaults and loud, boisterous reactions to them. One lout even shouted, “You people don’t know how to behave!” Mr. Lifschitz somehow finished the second installment and then did a slow burn at his piano bench. Last season,Peter Serkin played here to similar interference.
At least the gods smiled on Mr. Lifschitz with an apt sense of timing. The third pairing, the G major, expresses boiling anger, allowing the pianist to chastise the audience musically. This exercise seemed therapeutic for the young aspirant, as his general degree of accuracy improved beyond this point. Eventually, the people settled down and the artist was able to proceed unimpeded. The result was a competent traversal, but one that never explored the emotional depth of the work.
Mr. Lifschitz, overly concerned with avoiding mistakes, ignored the poetry of the music itself.His best efforts of the afternoon were a soft and snowy D major and the fugue from the B minor, which he struck hypnotically. He did a good job in capturing the music-box quality of the A major, with its reminiscences of the “Emperor” concerto, but his B major was neither sardonic nor skeletal, just notes on the page. Of course, this was a work in progress and he must start somewhere, but he never achieved a level of, well, in Bach it would be called “spirituality.”
It could have been worse for Mr. Lifschitz. When Tatyana Nikolayeva performed the cycle in San Francisco in 1993, she literally died onstage.
It was a bit of a sad occasion at the Weill recital hall on Thursday evening as the excellent series “Mozart Explored” ended its two-year residency. The scholar and fortepianist Robert Levin has been talking and playing us through some fascinating soirees wherein the audience could evaluate Mozart without all of the hype surrounding his 250th birthday. For this final event, Mr. Levin invited another scholar-musician to join him as Daniel Stepner introduced us all to the arcane world of mid-18th century violin playing.
Mr. Stepner talked about his instrument, which utilizes both bare and wound gut strings, and is tuned below the norm of A440. Not employing modern steel makes the sound much gentler and less piercing, ideal for a small room like Weill. Mr. Levin chimed in with a little dissection of his instrument, demonstrating how this forerunner of the modern piano employs devices to soften its sound. The resulting dual sonority of keyboard and violin was utterly charming.
The pair explored creations from all three periods in Mozart’s development, starting with the amazing Sonata K. 13, which the wunderkind penned at the age of 8. The depth of emotion in this piece is astounding for any composer, but for a pre-pubescent boy, it is extraordinary.
Mr. Levin then expounded on a very interesting theory. Every artist has an apogee after which his works continue to grow and improve,but become,in Mr. Levin’s aptly chosen word, peculiar. Certainly this is true of Beethoven in the late quartets or Schubert in the late piano sonatas, but it is just as a propos of Michelangelo and Joyce.
As an example of that apogee, the duo offered a truly superb rendition of the only piece ever written by Mozart in E minor, the Sonata K. 304, which the grief-stricken youth penned in Paris with the corpse of his mother in the next room. This being the Mozart year, I have seen this intense work of genius performed at least a half-dozen times over the last two seasons, but nowhere was it given such an eloquent reading.
Messrs. Levin and Stepner also performed Mozart’s penultimate violin sonata, the A major, K. 526. This is a tremendous valedictory statement, one that supports the idea that there are early, middle, and late periods in each composer’s life.
The corollary of Mr. Levin’s thesis about artistic growth is that all good things must come to an end, and this fine series is now but a memory. In looking back over the last two seasons,I can’t remember another effort from which I learned so much.Thank you, Mr. Levin.