This past Friday night, members of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra joined with special guest and pianist Dmitry Masleev for an installment of the GSO’s chamber music series, Sitkovetsky and Friends. Slated on the program were a series of six short piano pieces by Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor in five movements.
Guest artist Dmitry Masleev emerged the winner of the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015 and was awarded both the first prize and the gold medal. Named after the famed Russian composer, the Tchaikovsky Competition is a prestigious classical-music competition for musicians held in Moscow, Russia every four years. The competition served as a medium of discovery of Masleev’s creative character and impeccable technique, with international performances, including a recital in Carnegie Hall at the end of the month.
The concert began with an introduction from maestro Dmitry Sitkovetsky, followed by a series of Rachmaninoff’s solo piano pieces. The six selected works, all composed between 1892 and 1917, demonstrate the time Rachmaninoff spent in his native home in Russia before emigrating to the United States. Six of many short compositions for solo piano, these pieces displayed Rachmaninoff’s typical character, said to be a blend of Russian lyricism and virtuosity.
Masleev began with an elegy, typically a short and pensive composition, followed by the well-known Prelude in C-sharp minor and a brief work entitled Fragments. He played with emotional intensity and great understanding, evident on his face and through his whole body. His accuracy was admirable, and his fingers shaped melodies that flowed together seamlessly.
The second half of the program consisted of three selected Etudes-tableaux, or “study pictures.” Composed to be what Rachmaninoff called “musical evocations of external visual stimuli,” the inspirations behind each piece were undisclosed in favor of allowing the listener to paint the image they see fit. The three selections that Masleev performed were unique and contrasting, and he played each one with virtuosity and precise skill. The end of the set was met with a well-deserved standing ovation from an overflowing audience.
After a brief pause to set the stage and tune, the second half began. Pianist Masleev returned to the stage, now joined by maestro Sitkovetsky and concertmaster Marjorie Bagley on violin, Scott Rawls on viola, and Alex Ezerman on cello for what is considered to be Shostakovich’s finest work of chamber music.
In 1940, the esteemed Beethoven Quartet asked Shostakovich to write a piano quintet, in which Shostakovich could play his own piano part. The resulting Quintet in G minor was so well-received that Shostakovich received the Stalin Prize, which was the largest cash prize ever given for a work of chamber music.
Living in the Soviet Union during the second world war, Shostakovich had a complicated relationship with the government. His music was initially well-received, but as the Soviet Union fell into complexity and controversy under Stalin, Shostakovich’s compositions became increasingly politically charged. In 1936, Shostakovich fell from official favor after Stalin reacted poorly to his opera Lady Macbeth. He was denounced in a series of attacks in the newspaper, and his life quickly became at risk. However, he returned to favor with his Fifth Symphony, which outwardly conformed to the strict rules and regulations the government put in place for music.
Though it was risky and potentially life-threatening, Shostakovich continued to speak his political mind through his compositions. His Piano Quintet in G minor was composed in the early days of the World War II, and violinist Rostislav Dubinsky noted that the quintet “remained in the consciousness of the people as the last ray of light before the future sank into a dark gloom.”
The quintet consists of five movements, the first being a prelude marked Lento, to be played slowly. It begins with a piano solo, followed by a colorful entry of the four string instruments, with the cello as the leading voice. The remainder of the movement builds upon a recurring three-note idea, exploring tonalities and dynamic levels. A quick, whirlwind scherzo follows the slower second movement, a fugue. The fourth movement, an intermezzo, is slow and relaxed, leading seamlessly to the final movement, which features a piano theme that echoes ideas from throughout the rest of the quintet and grows to a gentle but quick ending.
The five musicians played together with balance and a deep understanding of one another’s skills and attributes. Though each individual was virtuosic and talented, they played as a unit and allowed the proper melodies and progressions to shine through. The entire piece was exciting and enjoyable, particularly the central scherzo, which was energetic and extremely powerful.
The next installment of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra’s chamber series comes in April, with works by Mozart and Tchaikovsky. More information is available online.