Last night’s Faculty Artist Series recitalist in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was violist Jonathan Vinocour. Only two weeks ago, Vinocour, who is also San Francisco Symphony Principal Viola, had provided the extensive solo work for Hector Berlioz’ flamboyant Opus 16 symphony, which he called “Harold in Italy;” but last night made for a sharp contrast. In place of dazzling colors, Vinocour prepared a recital that amounted to a study in light and dark; but the darkness was so uncompromising that it could only be used to complete the program, after which nothing more could be said.
The source of that darkness was Dmitri Shostakovich’s final composition, his Opus 147 sonata for viola and piano. (Vinocour’s accompanist was pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi.) This piece was completed on July 5, 1975, almost exactly a month prior to his death on August 9. Ill health had gotten the better of Shostakovich as early as 1958, but his work kept him going. He began composing Opus 147 in June of 1975, writing it for (and dedicating it to) Fyodor Druzhinin, the violist in the Beethoven Quartet that replaced founding violist Vadim Borisovsky, who had been Druzhinin’s teacher at the Moscow Conservatory. (The Beethoven Quartet had premiered thirteen of Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets, all but the first and last.)
Each of the three movements of this sonata is disquieting in its own way (to borrow Leo Tolstoy’s famous trope). The opening Moderato movement is anything but moderate. Indeed, its thematic building blocks are so sparse that it is barely a movement at all. The following Allegretto has the familiar earmarks of the sardonic tone that served Shostakovich so well in other Allegretto movements, but this one is haunted by the D minor fugue subject from the Opus 87 collection of preludes and fugues and possible the despair-laden Opus 67 piano trio in E minor. That leaves the concluding Adagio, which persists in recalling the rhythmic pattern on a single pitch that characterizes the upper voice in the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 27, Number 2 “Moonlight” sonata in C-sharp minor. We know, of course, that the moonlight reference was a publisher’s marketing ploy; but, if moonlight was remote from Beethoven’s thoughts, it was practically antithetical to Shostakovich’s Adagio. More appropriate would be John Milton’s description of Hell as “darkness visible” in Paradise Lost.
What was important last night was that Vinocour did not overplay his hand. Shostakovich packed so much into his score pages that fidelity to the text takes priority over any efforts to out-Herod Herod, so to speak. Through clarity of all thematic lines in the viola and mutual agreement with Nakagoshi over the range of dynamic levels, Vinocour elicited the full extent of poignancy in Shostakovich’s voice. This may not have made for a cheerful conclusion to the evening, but it certainly left the attentive listener pondering.
The more upbeat selections took place during the first half of the program. This amounted to a salute to Druzhinin’s teacher Borisovsky. The opening selection was a sonata in D minor that Mikhail Glinka worked on between 1825 and 1828 and then abandoned. Only one movement was completed, the opening Allegro moderato. This was followed by an unfinished Larghetto, ma non troppo. Borisovsky completed this movement in 1932; so Vinocour performed Glinka’s first movement and Borisovsky’s completion of the second. Both movements had many pleasant qualities; but they also tended to recall that decadent French-speaking salon life that Tolstoy would subsequently mock so skillfully in the opening of War and Peace.
More overt and good-natured mockery could be found in Vinocour’s second selection, Borisovsky’s arrangements of five pieces from Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. “The Street Awakes” was particularly effective, drawing more on dynamics than on Prokofiev’s love of instrumental colors to capture the bumptious oblivion of all those poor citizens of Verona fated to get in the way when the Montagues and Capulets went at each other. Similarly, Mercutio’s solo at the Capulet ball was exhilaratingly manic, flying by too fast for the arrogant Capulets to recognize that they were being mocked. As to the Capulets themselves, Borisovsky demonstrated that one did not need a full brass section to capture that arrogance. This was Romeo and Juliet on a chamber music playing field, and it definitely played the game very well.