Siege Diaries 11/21/2021

I’m starting a post that’s largely about music with a piece of illumination that escaped my huge catch-up post of last weekend. This was an award for a woodworker.

And now, the music–a performance, and an anniversary, and all Shostakovich (of course). The K-W Chamber Music Society hosted a concert by the Guelph Festival Trio last night, and the featured work was the Trio no. 2. The story behind its composition is tragic, and involves one of the key figures of Shostakovich’s early life–his best friend, Ivan Sollertinsky. Theirs was as a striking example of deep, unabashed male friendship as you could hope to find. The two met in 1927, when Shostakovich was 21 and Sollertinsky a year older. Sollertinsky was not a musician–but he was, among other things, a musicologist. He had started out as a scholar of Spanish literature and Romance languages (he was said to have speaking proficiency in 26 of them, including non-Romance languages such as Japanese, by the end of his life), but–a true polymath with a phenomenal memory–soon extended that expertise into theatre, ballet, and music and a position with the Leningrad Philharmonic as its artistic director. He was the one who introduced Shostakovich to Mahler, and was an active promoter of Mahler’s music in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich’s letters to Sollertinsky survive, although Sollertinsky’s to him do not– Shostakovich apparently burnt all of the correspondence he received as a general practice, being a notoriously private person living in a society where correspondence could be used to send someone to a labour camp, or worse. Even through the horrible lens of Google Translate (the letters have not been translated into English yet) they provide a lively glimpse into the inner mind of Shostakovich in his early 20s–snarky, witty, full of Opinions, impulsive in romance, and incredibly expressive about his affections for his friend–and how everything changes after the events of 1936; you can literally see him change almost overnight. Later on, it would emerge that many blamed Sollertinsky for leading Shostakovich down the “path of formalism,” and one wonders what would have happened to him in 1948…but, of course, nothing did–and that leads to the Trio.

In 1941, when prominent artists (including musicians) were evacuated from besieged Leningrad, Sollertinsky went to Novosibirsk with the Leningrad Philharmonic. Shostakovich ended up in Kuibyshev (now Samara), and his correspondence indicated just how much he missed his friend. When Shostakovich was able to move to Moscow in 1943, Sollertinsky was finally able to visit in December of that year, but in February of 1944, Sollertinsky died in Novosibirsk. He had apparently had a premonition years ago that he would not live to see the age of 40, partially because of chronic health issues which were exacerbated by alcohol. He was also a workaholic, and the details of his final days are of him pushing himself despite feeling “off.” And so one night, he curled up on the floor of a colleague to sleep after a late night and simply never woke up.

Shostakovich was absolutely gutted. The Trio no. 2 was his response. It was apparently already in progress when he heard of Sollertinsky’s death, but the two middle movements just seem to evoke his friend and his own response to loss so perfectly. The second movement is full of what I would call nonstop dialogue (Sollertinsky was apparently a brilliant orator with a way of knocking the stuffing out of pretentions jerks by a well-placed word or two). The third, in contrast, features a passacaglia where the pianist does nothing but play a series of unchangeable, repeated chords while the violinist and cellist engage in a dialogue of exquisite agony and longing. It is almost as if the pianist (that being Shostakovich’s own instrument) becomes numb and incapable of feeling, while others around him absolutely burst with deep mourning. And then comes the final movement, with its klezmer elements, which may or may not have been introduced to him by Sollertinsky, and which may or may not represent Jewish death camp inmates being forced to dance on their own graves before being shot. (There seems to be an assumption that Sollertinsky was Jewish, although the sources are unclear about that.) At the end, the chords from the third movement are repeated once again, and–at last–change, resolving into a kind of odd acceptance, with the movement–and the entire work–ending quietly.

So that’s a long introduction for a fairly short piece. I’d heard it once live before in a concert where the violinist broke her E string about halfway through the final movement and, rather heroically, still managed to finish the concert. There was none of that last night. The Guelph Festival Trio consists of three fairly local musicians–violinist Sadie Fields, cellist Katie Schlaikjer, and pianist Ken Gee; Schlaikjer is also part of the Penderecki Quartet, which I saw playing Beethoven last month. Compared to the Beethoven, this concert was less well attended. It also featured a marvellous solo cello sonata movement by David Baker (who, as it turns out, was a jazz trombonist before a mouth injury forced him to switch to the cello), Souvenir d’un lieu cher by Tchaikovsky for violin and piano, and a piece for the trio, Capricious Modes by another contemporary composer, David Charke. The Shostakovich was the clear drawing card, and I heard overheard everything in conversations from confusing him with Stravinsky to, from the man sitting two rows directly in front, a kind of obsession with this particular work which he said “he hadn’t known until recently.” The gentleman who is one of the driving forces behind these concerts was clearly very familiar with the work–it was amusing to see him (an elderly man who walks with a pair of canes) bopping along with the faster movements.

The strength of the performance was in the strings; I got the sense that the pianist was a little less familiar with the work, which meant he was technically proficient but lacking somewhat on nuance. Fields had a very expressive style with a lot of vibrato as a soloist, but for the trio she toned down the vibrato considerably while still keeping the expression. Schlaikjer was the clear star, especially with the incredibly high-pitched harmonics that start the piece; she was dead-on. I hadn’t realized the harmonics went on as long as they did, pitching the cello well above the violin’s register initially. The strongest movements were the middle two: the exuberant second, where the expressions of the players conveyed precisely how much fun they were having, and then the drastic change in tone in the transition to the third movement, as exhibited in a change in posture and body language. I found the outer two movements just slightly on the too slow side, although the performances were otherwise outstanding. But it was a danged fine effort from a non-full-time trio.

The pause between movements 2 and 3.

I also took the opportunity to once again match my clothing with the date of the composition. The outfit I wore had originally been intended for the cancelled performance of the “Leningrad” symphony in Chicago: A black vintage dress, my reproduction black oxfords, the red felt poppy corsage I made from a period booklet, vintage jewelry, and a go at a period rolled hairstyle. I was pretty happy with it.

That’s it for the concerts for another month. But today was the premiere anniversary of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, and that deserves a link to the first recording of the work, dating to 1938. The sound quality is horrible, but it’s wonderfully raw and has the feeling of not quite having finished maturing yet.

Friday I finished a hat as a QPT prize Today, there was painting of tokens for QPT, making good progress on a simple embroidered collar for a last-minute special project, and doing some final research for a scroll text. We also made plans to visit Ottawa just before Christmas and bought tickets for Dundurn Castle’s evening holiday tour. The next two weekends will be dominated by SCA events. I also got the outdoor lights up, although the lights on the eavestrough which have been up for a full year do not seem to be cooperating at the moment–I will need to check them more closely. Oh–and the go-ahead has been given for vaccines for the 5-12 set. I am hopeful this might be the push to get us over the hump. Fingers crossed. But for now–the siege continues.