What a remarkable concert was played last night (Saturday 23 August 2014) at the Wits Atrium! The concert was over subscribed and more chairs had to be brought in. This is always a good sign. It means that the audience trust the advertised musicians to deliver a great experience.
The Wits Trio (Malcolm Nay on piano, Zanta Hofmeyr on violin and Maciej Lacny on cello) are an established ensemble which always delivers musical excellence, but the concert last night went beyond this, into realms of “Now I am ready to die.”
The concert began with the Notturno in E-Flat Major Opus 148 (D.897) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). It is an attractive work, not well known, but very easily accessible.
The finale was the Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Opus 26 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). The Wits Trio were joined by Jacques Fourie on viola. The music is magnificent and the playing was wonderful. I always enjoy any chamber music which pairs Malcolm Nay and Zanta Hofmeyr. They both work with a lot of other people but they make special magic together.
It was, however, the middle piece of the evening where that special brand of music meets life that takes an ordinary, enjoyable concert and turns it into an extraordinary event which reaches in and touches the soul of the listener. The work was the Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Opus 67 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).
Malcolm Nay introduced the piece for us, setting the scene. The composition was written in 1944 during World War II. The horrors of the holocaust were becoming known at this stage. It was dedicated to Ivan Sollertinsky, a Jewish musicologist and critic who died at the early age of 41 of a heart attack. The work reflects on both the situation of the Jews (the third and fourth movements using Jewish religious and traditional music as themes) and, generally, on the ravages of war. This work premiered in Leningrad on 14 November 1944, but it has much to say to the world at any time there is war.
The four movement work takes less than a half hour, but for me it was a time of turbulent emotions and introspective reflection on the current situation in the Middle East. It doesn’t matter where one stands on any particular war issue – the heartbreak, pain, suffering, indignity, pointlessness and terror are all there to hear. There is no such a thing as a good war which kills people.
The Andante begins with a difficult and highly dissonant cello solo, joined by the piano and then the violin. The entire composition is technically demanding for all three instruments. The second movement, the Allegro con brio, is a frenzied dance. It never settles, jarring continually, exhausting the listener, never mind the performers. The third movement, the Largo, is, as Malcolm Nay says, introduced with ominous death knell chords and then is a lament straight from the synogogue. It tugs at one’s heartstrings. The Allegretto which forms the fourth movement flows from the third without a break in a macabre rendition of the Jewish celebratory music often heard at weddings. The work ends with an almost inaudible tortured E Major chord which Malcolm Nay describes as the saddest chord in any music.
The demands made on the musicians themselves are echoed in the demands made of the audience. It is the first time I have heard the work, but I love it instantly. It is one of those pieces which will remain with me for a long time. I find a recording of it (Borodin Quartet) on YouTube. This is accompanied by stark black and white images dating back to the era.
Recordings of this work exist featuring David Oistrakh, Milos Sadlo and Dmitri Shostakovich himself on piano (as in the premiere of this work). Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax have also recorded it. Joshua Bell, Olli Mustonen and Steven Isserlis are another set of famous musicians who have chosen to record this haunting and evocative work.