Siege Diaries 5/10/2022

Last week was tiring, the back part in a very good way, but the first half–well, the exhaustion of the leaked US Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade–even thought everyone know it was coming–permeated and continues to permeate existence.

I’ve been listening to Arcade Fire’s new release on loop since it came out. At first, it took a little while to warm to anything beyond the first single (“Lightning I/II”, which remains my favourite), but, as some critics have noted, this is music for a moment of time, particularly the first half. “Age of Anxiety I” is just about as perfect a summation of the last few years as I have seen, and the four parts of “End of the Empire” — but particularly the first one– evoke some big emotions.

From Friday to Sunday, I had three concerts, an online conference, a visit to the Vintage Clothing show, and my usual Sunday Pathfinder session.

The Friday and Sunday concerts shared a common work: Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata, op. 40, dating to 1934. This particular work rests on the edge of the abyss, the gulf of censure that would envelop Shostakovich in 1936 when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was condemned in Pravda. In 1934, the world was a very different place for him. That same opera had just opened in January of that year and was widely popular. Shostakovich had been furiously busy since he had completed the opera in 1932 and its premiere, including writing his Concerto for Piano and Trumpet, writing music for an early animated cartoon, and scoring the movie Counterplan, which led to his huge hit, “Song of the Counterplan.” (I do not exaggerate. It was by far Shostakovich’s most famous work during his lifetime, and it might just have been part of what kept him alive and encouraged to “reform himself” rather than sent off to a prison camp or worse). He’d gotten married, too…um, about that–Shostakovich in his early years was notoriously impulsive around romantic liaisons. There’s a great story in one of his letters to Sollertinsky about how he was all ready to marry a woman he’d just met, even though she was suspected of being a prostitute, but he forgot his ID. In his defense, the contemporary attitudes about marriage in the Soviet Union at the time led to a lot of very, very short marriages; “free love” was the ideal (although Stalin would by the mid-30s have put an end to that. At the time Shostakovich was composing the Cello Sonata, he was engaged in an affair with a young translator named Elena Konstantinovskaya–an affair that would later lead to the breakup of his marriage–for about three weeks. Perhaps the work reflects that attitude of blossoming romance. Perhaps not. But it’s a liminal work. It has echoes of the slow movement of the Concerto for Piano and Trumpet, but less of the madcap humour–instead, there’s a kind of gentle whimsy and brio. There are portions–especially some of the percussive piano lines–that foreshadow the Piano Quintet that was written five years later, on the other side of the abyss. Much of the But notably, there’s a Largo–in many ways, the first of its kind. As the Wiki article notes: “It is one of the earliest examples of a mood that was to feature in many of Shostakovich’s most powerful works, reflective introspection through icy dissonances that touch yet do not settle on warmer consonances, until the music eventually fades into the impressionistic twilight.” I’ve long been stunned at how the Largo of the 5th Symphony, which moved listeners to tears at its premiere–seems to have sprung in its utter perfection as a whole from the composer’s mind, but, as I listened ahead of the concert, it seemed more and more clear that this Largo is where those seeds were planted. It lacks, perhaps, the intensity of the narrative of the 5th Symphony Largo, but if a narrative could be found and sustained in the movement, there is a premonition to be had there.

So: Two cellists, two very different programs, but with the Cello Sonata in common. The first, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, is just 23 years old, first coming to prominence in Britain in 2016, with a huge stack of accolades and several recordings already to his name. His older sister Isata is his accompanist–but she’s a star in her own right, with a critically-acclaimed album of Clara Schumann’s works to her name. The second, Gautier Capuçon, is 40 years old and French–but also comes from a musical family (his brother having made my favourite recording of Schumann’s violin concerto). His accompanist is Jean-Yves Thibaudeau, again, an acclaimed pianist in his own right with a thick catalogue of recordings.

So, general comments first: I was in the fourth row for the Kanneh-Masons’ concert. Sheku came in wearing an aqua-coloured shirt with printed pants, his faintly-reddish hair in short dreds, while his sister Isata wore a black pantsuit with sparkly bits, her more grey-black hair worn naturally, almost like a dark halo under the stage lights. I wasn’t able to watch her piano playing, but she kept a cool, nonplussed, laid back demeanour throughout. Sheku, on the other hand, was absolutely passionately immersed in the music, his face a map of emotion, but his fingers flying gently over the strings with just the lightest touch. Except for the Beethoven he opened with, all the pieces on the concert–besides the Shostakovich, there were pieces by Bridges and Britten–were 20th century works. Capuçon, with his dark, floppy side-parted hair, in contrast, wore a suit, as did the light-haired Thibaudeau, who seemed over a head taller. Looking at Thibaudeau at the piano, I suspect he is quite a tall man. They seemed very…French. Their program was also rooted in Romantic classics by Schumann and Brahms, along with the very French Debussy.

Given this, it’s probably not surprising that Kanneh-Mason’s interpretation of the Shostakovich, in my mind, brought out the more modernist qualities of the work–particularly the pizzicato passages and the virtuosic second and fourth movements. Having listened to the composer perform the piano part for the work, I think Isata’s work captured much of what I would call the Shostakovich style of playing–very crisp and percussive. I was left wondering what Sheku would do with either of the two Shostakovich cello concertos, both written for Rostropovich, one of his heroes.

Capuçon’s performance, in contrast, with its more obvious rubato and phrasing brought out the more lyrical and Romantic aspects of the work–and this is where he had the very slight edge, in my opinion: His Largo found that narrative and had the audience silent, leaning forward for every nuance, whereas there was a lot of shifting around during Kanneh-Mason’s Largo. Here was the predecessor to the Largo of the 5th symphony I knew was there–but it required the performer to find it and tell that story. But Thibaudeau’s approach to the piano part was ultimately a little blander than Isata Kanneh-Mason’s.

Honestly, though, I loved them both. Capuçon has recorded both Shostakovich concertos, and I am now curious enough to perhaps seek them out.

The other concert was Sinfonia Toronto, doing (among other pieces) a chamber symphony adaptation of Shostakovich’s first string quartet. It worked quite well, although one thing that really sticks out when a string quartet is adapted for a larger group: any tiny mistake in the upper ranges really stands out. (There were really only a couple, though; this was a tight ensemble).

The vintage clothing show was merely OK. There was a lovely 30s opera coat in burgundy velvet that would have tempted me had it not been a little on the small side, but that was about it. I did come away with two pairs of vintage 30s-40s earrings, staying right on budget.

Both yesterday and today, I got a chance to get out and walk. The weather has turned lovely, and we are at that wonderful point of May where everything is turning lushly green, leaves are starting to emerge, and the early spring flowers are blooming. I caught the trilliums just as they were unfolding. At home, my narcissus and daffodils are now a riot of blooms. I think they’re spreading. And it looks like we might finally be able to coordinate with the unit next door to get that last bit of fence erected in the back yard.

Next week is Montreal, provided everything goes as expected. Fingers crossed. I’m ready for a vacation.