Russian music is the theme of this year’s Music@Menlo chamber music festival. Last Saturday’s opening night concert, at the Menlo-Atherton Center for the Performing Arts, addressed the question: How, in less than 35 years, did the image of Russian music change from the lush but restrained romanticism of, say, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings to the harsh rhythmic brutality of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring?
The program faced this question by pairing both of these bookmarks with music written (mostly) during the interval between those two works by two pianist-composers of intermediate age, Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff. They served to draw the line between Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.
Menlo is known for its genteel, civilized, thoughtful performances. Saturday’s served to bring these four disparate Russian composers closer together, to meet somewhere in the middle.
Tchaikovsky’s Serenade is a work for string orchestra. Menlo played it with a chamber orchestra of 15 players, a mixture of festival principal artists, young professionals from their International Program and others, led by concertmaster Nicolas Dautricourt. Perhaps because of the small size of the group or because they’re more used to chamber than instrumental playing, the sound came out grittier than usual for this smooth and gentle work. A premonition of the harsher music to come, perhaps.
Rachmaninoff was represented by his Suite for two pianos, Op. 17. This sounds less like his monumental concertos than like the sparkly bits of Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff likes to jangle around the upper register of the keyboards.
Usually, music for two pianos is played with the pianists facing each other across the bodies of their instruments. Lucille Chung and Gloria Chien sat side by side instead. This didn’t impede the tone of Chien’s piano, hidden behind the raised lid of Chung’s, and it must have contributed to the excellent coordination between the pianists in a work which usually lends itself to sloppiness and garrulousness.
Those were absent here. This was a concise, delightful piece of post-Tchaikovsky romanticism, lean and tough enough to hark forward in time without forgoing the beauty and lyricism of Rachmaninoff’s heritage.
Chung reappeared to play two early preludes and a late sonata movement, “Vers la flamme,” by Scriabin. The preludes were quiet and impressionistic, like Debussy. Chung went gently through the complex cross-rhythms to create a padding wash of sound. “Vers la flamme” begins the same way, but with stronger chromatic harmonies, then builds up to a small-scale dramatic climax.
That made it a good transition piece to the four-hands version of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” played here on two pianos by Chien and festival codirector Wu Han. This violent music, setting a ballet depicting a pagan sacrifice, made the audience jump when it was new in 1913. But where the rest of Saturday’s program harked forward, this performance looked backward.
Both pianists played as gently and lyrically as the score would let them. That’s not very far, of course: There’s lots of loud banging and jumpy themes in “The Rite of Spring.” It’s easy to miss, though, how much of it is quiet and capable of being played contemplatively. Even the opening theme gets its reputation for weirdness from its unusual orchestral color. On the piano, Wu Han played it as hesitant notes over dissonant but light chords from Chien, reminiscent of the Scriabin.
The concert was preceded by a free Prelude concert of International Program artists playing Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 and Brahms’ Piano Quartet, Op. 60. These are both funereal works, one evasive, the other dark and grim. They were played with fine dedication. The Brahms in particular was transcendently earnest.
The festival continues through Aug. 6 with many types of concerts, plus lectures and master-class rehearsals. Some events are free, and tickets are still available for others. Information is at musicatmenlo.org.