Review: Portsmouth Menuhin Room concert series: Shostakovich Piano Trio

Shostakovich Piano Trio, April 22

There were more reasons than usual to look forward to today’s Menuhin Room concert. Shostakovich is always an occasion and, after Catherine Lawlor’s Szymanowski in the cathedral was such a memorable highlight of the year so far, one was keen to hear what she did next. Also, a lecture recital meant that all would be explained and we knew in advance what it was all about.

The Piano Trio in question was no.2, op. 67, but it’s not all about the piano. Angela Zanders’ introduction was a textbook account of the composer, his place in history and the composition. In it she provided so many telling words and phrases she all but did me out of a job. He is a synthesis of classical structures, ambiguous, ‘angular’, frivolous, parodic, necessarily not ‘too modern’ or pessimistic and needed to adopt camouflage to maintain his integrity under the Soviet regime. Not always in that order but most of them at the same time. If there’s a greater C20th composer then I haven’t heard of them.

Mikhail Lezdkan’s cello began the first movement evoking the chill wind of the Russian taiga and tundra at the very top end of its range before Catherine’s violin joined beneath it mournfully and Angela’s piano began in its lowest register, thus already inverting any traditional expectations of who played what. From 1944, at the darkest time of WW2, it is full of intense foreboding, as Angela had said, as well as ‘sinister, enigmatic, but playful, assertive, with mock gaiety, angry, dissonant and dynamic’. * 

The second movement portrait of Shostakovich’s close friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, who died aged 41 while this piece was being written, is an energetic, ‘frenzied, relentless’ tribute to an overwhelming talent and character. There is no place to hide in this music. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Mikhail, Catherine and Angela are strong musical personalities and needed to be, almost needing to stand up to each other. A weak link would have let the whole thing down but they were as committed and forthright, as well as sensitive and ‘together’, as each other. It is an advantage, and a thrill, that ensemble playing has over solo performances that the whole is so much more than its constituent parts.

The third movement was a profound lament and the fourth an exhilarating ‘danse macabre’ taking much from folk and Jewish klezmer music, the piano again percussive while the strings despaired together but ambiguity is a deep and powerful thing in great art and the stormy, impassioned passage towards the finish grew and crashed about until, unlike the other movements that end abruptly with no afterthoughts, it does end quietly, and on a major chord, so that after all that Shostakovich still provides a glimpse of something maybe positive. Not being sure if we are allowed such hope is more affecting than being offered solid reassurance.

The downside of a lecture recital is that there is less actual concert and the Piano Trio lasts 25 minutes. That is what I was going to say but it was hard to believe so much had happened in so short a time. Enough is more than enough. There was a stunned, prolonged silence before the extended applause which, if there was any justice, should have been a standing ovation. My fault. I should have started it – somebody has to – because I’m sure others would have followed.

We will be more than adequately compensated next week, though, when Cordelia Williams presents a longer programme that doesn’t include Shostakovich. You can’t have him every week and Schubert, Schumann and the like will be gentler on us.

In today’s Times there is an interview with Simon Rattle sorrowful and concerned that this is a ‘desperate moment’ in British classical music. He would know more about that than me but I saw no evidence of it in the Menuhin Room, which is largely thanks to Andrew McVittie’s wonderful work in making this series happen, and I don’t see anything but good things happening across our local area. But while almost routinely enthusing about all the events I attend, there has to be a space left above genuine praise and enthusiasm for the extra special. I hope I left enough for Angela Zanders (Piano), Mikhail Lezdkan (Cello), Catherine Lawlor (Violin) and their Shostakovich Piano Trio, op. 67, because that was truly, madly, deeply moving and, as is the point of music at its very best, no words are enough.

* With thanks to Angela for so many such words throughout. One can hardly pass up the opportunity to use her words because she got in first and took the best ones ahead of me.

David Green

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