Although Russia has been in the news a lot lately, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s 2019 Winter Festival, Russian Panorama, has nothing to do with current world affairs. Instead, says David Finckel, co-artistic director of CMS, “It is a reminder that there are great aspects of Russian culture that are enjoyed all over the world, unblemished by global politics.”

Works by 14 composers over four concerts (March 10, 15, 19, and 24) and a talk by the noted lecturer Michael Parloff (March 5) demonstrate a range of this Russian culture. The earliest work heard in the festival is Trio pathétique for Clarinet, Bassoon, and Piano, written in 1832 by Mikhail Glinka (performed by David Shifrin, clarinet, Marc Goldberg, bassoon, and Anne-Marie McDermott, piano on March 10). “Russian classical music was a late bloomer relative to Western European musical traditions,” notes Parloff. “Although Peter the -Great and his successors imported Western musical influences during the 18th century, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Glinka and his successors forged a distinctly Russian-sounding musical identity that blended nationalist aesthetics with international eclecticism.”

The composers Alexander Borodin, Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky- Korsakov—collectively known as The Mighty Five—made an enormous contribution to Russian music. “During the 1860s, Russian political and societal turmoil was reflected in the literary, artistic, and musical worlds,” Parloff explains. “The so-called Mighty Five rejected Western modes of academic musical training and created works that were uniquely Russian.”

Alexander Borodin, whose Second String Quartet will be performed by the Borodin Quartet on March 24, was a vaunted composer who, out of all The Mighty Five, had the most impressive day job. He was a high-ranking chemist who made significant discoveries in that field. Finckel compares Borodin’s gift for great melodies and harmonies to that of Mozart and Schubert—composers whose music seemed to just flow out of them.

Formed in 1945, the Borodin Quartet is one of the longest-lived string quartets of our time. In addition to music by its namesake, the quartet’s program on March 24 includes works by Myaskovsky and Shostakovich. The quartet’s connection with Shostakovich’s chamber music is intensely personal. Over the years, the members had a close relationship with the composer, who supervised their work on each of his quartets.

Celebrating Resilient Russian Music
Photo by Andy Staples
The Borodin Quartet

Composer Sergei Taneyev came of age soon after the heyday of The Mighty Five and was a key figure in the development of Russian music from the end of the 19th century into the 20th. As a student at the Moscow Conservatory, he studied with Tchaikovsky, and later as a professor at the same institution, was Sergei Rachmaninov’s composition teacher. His Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 30, performed by pianist Wu Han, violinists Alexander Sitkovetsky and Arnaud Sussmann, violist Matthew Lipman, and cellist Nicholas Canellakis, anchors the March 15 program. Though his name is not as familiar as some other composers in this festival, Taneyev was an incredible master of composition. “The sophistication of the writing in this quintet is absolutely at the highest level of the era—up there with Wagner and Richard Strauss,” observes Finckel. “The emotional impact, the uniqueness of the sound, the flavor, and certainly the challenge for the performers combine to create an extremely gratifying and revelatory experience for all.”

Another intensely emotional work on the festival is Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, played by Anne-Marie McDermott and Wu Qian on March 10. Finckel agrees that this work carries the kind of incredible weight and power that Russian composers are famous for—a “blockbuster.” And he adds: “The sound of two magnificent Steinway concert grand pianos played at full tilt by two incredible pianists is more than the sum of its parts; it’s a symphony of piano sound.”

Celebrating Resilient Russian Music
Photo by Tristan Cook
Pianist Wu Qian

Chamber music can also be an introspective art form, says Finckel. “Composers tend to turn to the genre of chamber music for their most personal statements.” As an example, Finckel cites Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio (performed on March 19 by pianist Gilles Vonsattel, violinist Chad Hoopes, and cellist Clive Greensmith) which is subtitled “in memory of a great artist,” to honor Tchaikovsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rubinstein. In turn, Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque written some years later, was composed in memory of Tchaikovsky.

Dmitri Shostakovich was another composer who used chamber music to express his most intimate emotions. His chamber music was like his diary, the medium he used to covertly express his thoughts and opinions. “Much of Shostakovich’s music conveys a mood of emotional and political ambiguity, leaving open the question of whether he was a committed Communist or a secret dissident,” observes Parloff. “In the end, Shostakovich became the master of inserting private, inscrutable messages into musical bottles and casting them adrift upon the roiling Soviet seas.”

Many of the Russian composers in this festival lived under an evolving succession of repressive regimes, causing deep dissatisfaction. “The rebellious forces ignited in the 1860s reached their boiling point in the revolutionary years of the early 1900s,” Parloff explains, “and many composers and artists fled to the West, breaking politically, if not spiritually, with their homeland.” Finckel adds, “Despite all the country’s hardships and oppression, the fact that all of this music came up like grass through concrete is deeply inspiring, and the resilient spirit of the Russian people connects powerfully through this music to listeners the world over.”

Gail Wein is a New York–based music journalist and media consultant.

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