Grief – Public and Private – Found in Shostakovich

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The specter of death haunts the pages of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Piano Trio No. 2.” Thoughts about his best friend Ivan Sollertinsky – who died from a heart attack at age 41 during the work’s composition – mingle with ruminations over the horror of the Nazi concentration camps, the news of which had just began to creep into the USSR as the trio neared completion.

The composer’s penultimate symphony ends with words that could have very well been this trio’s motto: “Death is great. When we think we are in the midst of life, he dares to weep among us.”

Pianist Armen Guzelimian, violinist Roberto Cani, and cellist Ruslan Biryukov wisely chose the Shostakovich as the cornerstone of a recital held on Saturday night commemorating the centennial of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.

The musicians ably navigated the score’s fusion of private and public grief. It’s also a work that makes virtuosic demands of its players, starting with the exposed opening bars for the solo cello, played in harmonics on its very highest register. Biryukov met the challenge with ease, though he never sounded facile. He powerfully conveyed the aching sadness of those opening bars – which sound like the quiet tears of a person whose soul is utterly drained of the energy to sob openly.

Cani’s pure, sweet-toned playing, with portamenti judiciously employed, added a dimension of warmth and tenderness not often found in performances of Shostakovich’s music. That impression was further abetted by the honeyed glow of Guzelimian’s pianism, with its pellucid voicing and the ability to shape a beautiful singing line.

Only the third movement, “Largo,” seemed disappointingly prosaic in their hands. The movement is in the form passacaglia dominated by a grupetto figure that recalls the finale of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 9,” eventually rising to a double forte climax of declamatory power, and then finally receding into the darkness that seamlessly ushers in the last movement. But the musicians kept the dynamic modulations flat, never rising above forte, which robbed the movement of much of its pathos.

They were on much firmer ground in the finale’s unsettling mixture of lament and gallows humor, with a climax that was crowned by Guzelimian’s hair-raising triple forte octaves.

The extroverted orientalism and (calculated) sense of naïveté of Arno Babadjanian’s “Piano Trio in F-sharp minor” was, perhaps, not the best choice to close the concert. Its irrepressible cheer would have been a better fit to open the concert. But in a hall where the embers from the Shostakovich trio’s poignant coda still lingered, the intrusion of the Babadjanian was almost cruel.

Opening with a mournful melody in octaves for violin and cello that expands into the first movement, which is followed up by a luscious nocturne-like second movement, Babadjanian’ trio is shockingly conservative in tone, even for what was expected from Soviet composers in the icy final years of Stalin’s rule. It’s hard to believe it was composed in the 20th century at all, much less nearly a decade after the Shostakovich trio.

Nonetheless, the musicians played Babadjanian’s outgoing charm to the full; relishing its simple, homophonic textures, late 19th century harmonic idiom, and easy-going energy.

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