By Ted Ayala
Exhuming long-forgotten musical works can often be an arduous task. It can require months, if not years, of careful research, sleuthing, and sometimes a little luck to turn up a musical gem that hitherto lost in some dusky, dusty corner of musical history. Or if one is really lucky, as in the case with Le Salon de Musiques and their performance of a rarely heard chamber music gem last Sunday, skip the aforementioned altogether and simply download the score from the Internet.
Waiting right under the noses of the musical public are dozens of scores by Reinhold Glière, a Russian composer whose brawny and vibrant musical language has somehow eluded the attention of a wider audience.
Not that Glière ever meant for that to happen.
By any reckoning his career in Russia was a total success. He was a well-respected pedagogue, counting Aram Khachaturian and Alexander Mossolov among his students. As a composer, his works were widely performed in the Soviet Union; his ballet The Red Poppy enjoyed widespread critical and popular success in the 1920s. He was also the recipient of numerous state prizes, winning the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize three times each. He quickly found his musical style in the rich, melodically refulgent musical atmosphere of late 19th/early 20th century Russia of “The Mighty Five” and Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov—and pursued this style without deviation until his death in 1957.
Even in comparison to other composers of his generation and later who continued to be faithful to late Romanticism even long after its sun had set—think of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Nikolai Myaskovsky, or Ernst von Dohnányi—his music can seem old-fashioned. Side-by-side with fellow Soviet composers like Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, and Khachaturian and his music can seem as if it is from another world, so untouched is his work by any hint of the 20th century.
It was an early work that headed Le Salon’s program on Sunday, the String Quartet No. 2 from 1905, though his style remained remarkably constant in the decades that followed it. In four movements, the quartet demonstrates some of the finest qualities of Glière’s style: long-spun and potent melodies, creamy harmonies, and a quasi-orchestral sense of dramatic flair. There are moments in the score, especially in the first movement, where the composer seems to become impatient with the limitations of imposed by employing merely four instruments; as if he had to fight off the urge to add a dash of brass color, a languorous clarinet, or a cymbal crash to the sober quartet texture. Not a particularly subtle piece, but gorgeous just the same.
Paired with the Glière was another “G”—Edvard Grieg’s String Quartet No. 1. Grieg is often typecast as a miniaturist, but his first extant string quartet has an engaging muscularity akin to the younger Russian composer. Like the Glière, the Norwegian’s quartet seems to want to push the limitations of the string quartet to the breaking point. This is a very different Grieg from the one heard, say, in the Lyric Pieces.
The performance by Serena McKinney (violin I), Erik Arvinder ( violin II), Rob Brophy (viola), Eric Byers (cello) was a fine one. Perhaps because of its unfamiliarity, the performance of the Glière quartet seemed tentative and perfunctory; a bit too careful. The notes were all there, but the vigor that animates Glière’s music was too muted, too polite. It was Glière expressed in the impersonal third-person, rather than in an emphatic first.
Things improved substantially in the Grieg where the quartet delivered a performance of rhapsodic lyricism and intense dramatic power.
The program, despite the reservations about the performance of the Glière, was nonetheless a very good one; Le Salon de Musiques’ continued mining of some of the chamber repertoire’s most obscure recesses upstaging the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s better known neighbor and staider neighbor a few floors down.