Prokofiev and His World: Return to the U.S.S.R

Earlier this afternoon I attended a concert at Bard College which was part of a series called “Prokofiev and His World.” This afternoon’s program opened with Prokofiev’s Sonata in D Major, Op. 94, for flute and piano played by Randolph Bowman, flute, and Frederic Chiu, piano, followed by Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73 played by The Bard Festival String Quartet, Aram Khachaturian’s Song-Poem “In Honor of Ashugh” played by Erica Kiesewetter, violin, and Dmitry Rachmanov, piano, Samuil Feinberg’s Piano Sonata No. 8, Op. 21a, played by Benjamin Hochman, piano, and closed with another work by Prokofiev, his String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 92, played by The Bard Festival String Quartet.

I love sonata’s for piano and flute, but the one played this afternoon did nothing for me emotionally. The first and second movements, Moderato and Scherzo, I enjoyed well enough. I thought the third movement, Andante, was nice. It crept slowly onward with striking harmonies, and ended with one final note sustained on flute and piano, until it could be heard no more. The final movement – Allegro con brio – was more lively. Outside the large windows of the concert hall, the rain started to fall, enveloping us inside, and adding to the experience of the music. The flute ran like a river through the score… Here and there, splashes of white foamy rapids could be heard, as the music dashed and swelled.

It was really difficult for me to sit through The Bard Festival Quartet’s playing of the Shostakovich quartet. They were off pitch! It was terrible, especially since I have a CD of The Saint Lawrence String Quartet playing this, which I love… I hated having to endure hearing it played badly, it actually made me a little upset, which is not something you want music to make you… The second movement, Moderato con moto, was a little better, although not much. I don’t want to come across as harsh, but the whole time The Bard Festival Quartet was playing, all I could think about was being out of there. After the way the first two movements were played, I was actually dreading hearing the third, Allegro non troppo, being that it’s my favorite. And it was as bad as I had feared. Worse, even. If it weren’t for the fact that I didn’t want to be disrepectful, I would have walked out, that’s how strongly I felt. The Bard Quartet’s playing wasn’t in control, and I felt on edge (not in a good way either). The fourth movement, Adagio, dragged on until finally the last movement came, the closing Moderato. The opening wasn’t bad, it was actually the only part of the piece that I felt the quartet played rather well. The melody played by first violin is heartwrenching, and I was partially stirred. That said however, the brief joy that The Bard String Quartet’s playing brought me at first was shortly stifled as the movement progressed. If I had never heard Shostakovich before, I would have thought that I hate his music, which is unfortunate.

After the dreadful performance by The Bard Festival Quartet, it was refreshing to hear the beautiful Song-Poem “In Honor of Ashugh” by Aram Khachaturian. I love hearing violin and piano play together, and this piece was thoughtful and romantic. The violinist, Erica Kiesewetter, moved elegantly with her instrument, swaying with it as though they were one.

Next was pianist Benjamin Hochman, playing Samuil Feinberg’s Piano Sonata No. 8, Op. 21a. Mr. Hochman came out onto the stage taking long strides toward the piano, and I found his manner to be a bit pretentious. I thought he was a good pianist, but the whole time I was trying to figure out whether I liked his style of playing or not… (Still undecided). I liked the work though. Odd as it may seem, each of the three movements (Un poco animato, Andante cantabile, and Allegro) sounded as though they could be used during a dream sequence of an old movie starring Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly…

Last on the program was Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 92, played by the Bard Festival String Quartet. I have to say, as the musicians took the stage, I gazed longingly at the exits. But hey, I’m willing to give everyone a second chance, and so I did. It was definitely better than than the Shostakovich quartet, but still not praiseworthy. I thought they played rather well during the first movement, which was Allegro sostenuto. The cello opens the Adagio second movement, and carries the mourful melody throughout the beginning of it. The music then unfolds and is inflated with a happier spirit, as the first violin takes over the melody and the other instruments are played with plucked strings. To close the movement, the music channels darkness once more, and ends with final weak notes of despair. After that comes the final movement, Allegro-Andante molto-Quasi Allegro I, ma un poco pui tranquillo-Allegro I   (boy, that’s a mouthful. Try saying it three times fast…) It opens with plucked strings, followed by sharply bowed notes. Listening to this brought to mind the image of a stringed puppet being made to dance by a puppeteer. Although The Bard Festival String Quartet redeemed themselves a bit with the last piece, it was a relief when it came to a close. 

All in all I enjoyed some of the music, but the concert was mainly a dissapointment for me. And so that was how my afternoon was spent. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

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