Dmitri Shostakovich, Mary Laymon, Marc Levine, Hanna Strydom & Gail Olszewski — Images via wikimedia.org, facebook.com, marclevine.info, hannostrydom.com & gailopiano.com

Shostakovich: Romances & Trio

Chamber Music in The Baroque Room

Toward the end of his life, Dmitri Shostakovich often took leave of his otherwise prodigious sense of ironic humor to compose works in which alternating moods of anger, sadness, and resignation add up to a pervasive bleakness. Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok, written in 1967 while Shostakovich was recovering from a heart attack, is one such piece — a captivating and often beautiful work, but very far from easy listening. The piece proved particularly confrontational in Saturday’s performance by soprano Mary Laymon, violinist Marc Levine, cellist Hanno Strydom, and pianist Gail Olszewski in the intimate acoustic of Saint Paul’s Baroque Room, where there was nowhere to hide from the starkness of the composer’s vision.

Each of the Seven Romances, written for soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, features a slightly different instrumental accompaniment, with only the seventh song, “Music,” scored for all four musicians. In addition to this variety of instrumentation, each song inhabits a very different mood, something that especially came to the fore in Saturday’s performance. “Gamayum, the Prophetic Bird,” for voice and piano, was notable for its sometimes painful harshness — completely appropriate for a song about conquest and oppression — while the highlight of the performance was the final triptych, played without pause: the extrovertedly energetic “The Storm” with violin and piano, the enigmatic “Secret Signs” with violin and cello, and the haunting “Music.”

After an intermission, Levine, Strydom, and Olszewski returned to perform one of Shostakovich’s greatest chamber works, the Piano Trio No. 2. Composed in 1944 as the tremendous horror visited upon the Soviet Union by World War II was just starting to come to a close, the trio is less uniformly bleak on the surface than the Seven Romances but ultimately just as emotionally laden. After an eerie opening movement and a notably acerbic take on the brief scherzo, the musicians gave a restrained but moving account of the third movement — one of Shostakovich characteristic passacaglias — leading directly in to the piece’s ambiguous finale. The players seemed to take special care in this wide-ranging piece to tailor their playing styles to the demands of each moment, something that was particularly apparent in the way they handled the second and fourth movements’ brief forays into folk music.

Fans of Shostakovich know that discussions of his music often take a turn toward politics, commentators being especially fond of projecting onto the U.S.S.R.’s greatest composer their own beliefs and feelings about the events of the 20th Century. As for me, I have long thought that the defining characteristic of Shostakovich’s music is its ambivalence — the way it never seems to know quite how to feel; the way even its most heart-on-the-sleeve moments of emotionalism seem to mask other, deeper emotions; the way everything that seems certain one moment is called into question the next. All of these features were present Saturday as Laymon, Levine, Strydom, and Olszewski gave their collective take on two of the composer’s most enduring works.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.