Hamelin Treats Seattle to a Cheery Shostakovich and Dolorous Schnittke

Marc-André Hamelin

It’s rare to have an entire concert of 20th-century Russian chamber music, and thanks go to the Seattle Symphony musicians and pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who put together the program of Shostakovich and Schnittke works performed last Friday night at Nordstrom Recital Hall.

Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, Op. 57, may be in a minor key, but it’s one of the most cheerful chamber works the composer wrote. The ominous undercurrents which are rarely distant from his other works are absent here, and it can be enjoyed for just what it is, a well-designed, substantive work, full of melody.

Violinists Elisa Barston and guest violinist Natasha Bazhanov, violist Mara Gearman, and cellist Walter Gray, with Hamelin, caught the detail and the feelings which are widely different in succeeding movements: the first almost fantasia-like; the second with a haunting opening phrase (reminiscent of “Nahandove,” one of Ravel’s Chansons Madecasse); the third, a Scherzo, almost circus music, jaunty but with a hint of the macabre; and the fourth bright and peaceful though with what might be heard as a tolling bell.

Each of the strings players had moments of gorgeous tone, unpushed and warm, quiet and tender, while Hamelin, who could hardly have had more than one rehearsal, played as though he’d been with them for years.

Alfred Schnittke

Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, completed about 35 years after the previous quintet, is a very different work. This is full of sadness, as Schnittke mourned the death of his mother and then the death of Shostakovich. It’s not an easy work to assimilate, the atonal music having little by way of melody or comfortable harmonies. Violinist Mikhail Shmidt had worked with the composer in Moscow and described him as a modest, shy man who thought others’ music better than his own.

The piano role is spare. Every note counts, rather like the musical equivalent of a drawing by artist Paul Klee, and several times Schnittke includes an insistent repeated note which continues for some time.

Most notably in the first movement, this is at the top of the piano and struck so that it is more percussion than tone for most of its repetition, only towards the end becoming more gentle and singing. The strings meanwhile play in dissonant harmony in long notes which sound something like a hive of bees, and in the second movement a slightly bizarre waltz creeps in. Only by listening carefully does one discern the subtleties Schnittke has embedded in the music throughout.

And by watching. At the end of the first movement as the music became quieter and quieter, with only the piano remaining, Hamelin’s hands came off the keys and one could see his fingers moving above them in total silence. An unfortunate burst of clapping marred that hushed, unusual ending, from a part of the hall where the hands could not be seen. Shmidt and Hamelin were joined by violinist Artur Girsky, violist Sayaka Kokubo, and cellist Meeka Quan DiLorenzo in a performance given enthhusastic applause at the end.

First and shortest of the evening was another work impelled by grief. At eighteen, Shostakovich wrote this Prelude and later a companion Scherzo, for string octet, after the death of a friend. They are astonishing works for a teenager, harmonically sophisticated, intense, frenzied, eerie and grim, each part resolving only towards the end, expressing the anger towards death of a young man. The eight string players together gave it a strong performance.