Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Visiting Russian cellist inspires a fine, short-lived piano trio and an interesting recital

By , 18/08/2019

Levansa Trio (Andrew Beer – violin, Lev Sivkov – cello, Sarah Watkins – piano)

Debussy: Sonata for violin and piano (1917)
Grieg: Andante con moto for piano trio
Myaskovsky: Cello sonata No 2 in A minor, Op 81
Beethoven: Piano Trio in B flat, Op 97; ’Archduke’

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 18 August 2019, 2:30 pm

It might be unusual to give a common name to a group of three musicians who are clearly going to have only a few weeks together because one of its members lives in another country. The owner of the first three letters of the name ‘Levansa’ is the Russian cellist whose residence looks peripatetic at the present time, though his appointment in 2017 as principal cello of the Zurich opera orchestra suggests that he is currently a Swiss resident.

For a group that has only been together for a week or so, the first impression was of remarkable homogeneity, with all three playing with restraint, collectively creating refined and balanced performances.

Grieg’s Andante for piano trio
The first opportunity to hear the cellist was in the single movement of a piano trio by Grieg that was never finished. Here one could admire his rhythmic sensitivity and flawless intonation; simply, his most sophisticated playing.

Though the programme note characterised the Andante as sombre and solemn, that wasn’t the prevailing mood: the sturdy two-quaver piano motif supplied a firm, confident foundation, and its general character struck me as calm and contented, with no suggestion of discomfort with traditional musical forms. Grieg also wrote a cello sonata, a string quartet and three violin sonatas that are by no means contemptible. One of my earliest live experiences of Grieg was hearing his third violin sonata at a (then) NZ Chamber Music Federation concert in Taumarunui where I spent a three-week ‘section’ at the High School as a secondary teacher trainee in the late 1950s. (A cultural-geographic feature that suggests more wide-spread musical activity than one might find in small towns today).

Debussy: violin sonata
But the first piece was Debussy’s last composition – his violin sonata written in 1917 a few months before his death. His reversion to classical forms in his last years was accompanied by his adoption of a style that paid more attention to the traditions of the music of two centuries before, as his planned six sonatas were intended as homage to the music of Couperin and Rameau and their contemporaries.

And so I enjoyed the deliberateness and confidence with which violinist Beer and pianist Watkins brought to the sonata, with a good deal of attention to the richness and polish of the violin’s lower register. There is little in the names of either the second or third movements, Intermède: fantastique et léger and Très animé, to reflect the terrible suffering of the French in the First World War and the deaths of many of Debussy’s friends. Nor did their playing depart from ‘lightness’ and ‘animation’.

Myaskovsky’s second cello sonata was substituted for the advertised sonata by Duparc. All I really knew of the composer was his proclivity for symphonies – he wrote 27 of them as well as concertos, string quartets and much else – and his survival with little harassment by the Soviet cultural commissars.

As usual, there’s an interesting, reasonably comprehensive article about him in Wikipedia. I find it hard to desist from miscellaneous asides: Wikipedia writes that Russian conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov described Myaskovsky as ‘the founder of Soviet symphonism, the creator of the Soviet school of composition, the composer whose work has become the bridge between Russian classics and Soviet music … Myaskovsky entered the history of music as a great toiler like Haydn, Mozart and Schubert … He invented his own style, his own intonations and manner while enriching and developing the glorious tradition of Russian music’.

The sonata sounds mainstream in the sense of Russian composers born before 1900, who adjusted to Soviet demands and in his case led a reasonably undisturbed life as teacher at the Moscow Conservatorium. It’s eclectic in that it’s not easy to spot marked influences from either his Russian or other contemporaries, though I might venture Glazunov, Arensky or Scriabin. He was a close friend of Prokofiev, though their music has little in common.

I enjoyed the melodiousness of the piece and the warmth and expressiveness of both musicians’ playing. It’s far from being a showcase for either instrument and gains high marks accordingly. I was a little intrigued to notice that Sivkov took the mute off at the beginning of the second movement – a swaying, triple-time Andante cantabile – theoretically more lyrical and calm than the first movement; but the difference was not very marked. The third movement remained in a charming lyrical vein, now merely quicker and more animated with a good deal of pizzicato and staccato. As the end approached it seemed to gather speed, though that was rather more imagined than real.  Though not a piece that would have been much admired in avant-garde circles in the West in 1948, its plain musical qualities, its easy lyricism, can now be enjoyed without undue embarrassment. Certainly by me.

The ‘Archduke’ Trio
Finally, the piece that would have been the major attraction, though I was a little surprised that it had not drawn a bigger audience. Here was a further example of the balance and harmoniousness of the three players. Though the piano was always very audible Sarah Watkins clearly feels comfortable with the way the Fazioli projects its opulent, genteel sounds into the big space.  (Afterwards I was speaking to a friend about the piano and we tried to recall the north Italian town where the Fazioli factory is: my copy of the charming book by T E Cathcart, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank [in Paris], solved it: Sacile, about 120 km north of Venice).

I found myself noticing how much prominence was given to each instrument through each movement. The piano leads the way through the early parts of the first movement, but it was interesting to hear, as if I hadn’t been paying attention in a dozen earlier hearings, what a lot of routine passagework is given to the piano. This was surely just the effect of such a warmly delightful performance of one of the greatest masterpieces, not just in the chamber music sphere, but in the whole range of classical music. Not a moment passes that does not enchant and transport one to a sort of musical wonderland. Almost any sort of performance will move you in that direction, but one as enrapturing as this discovers delights and musical miracles at every turn. Especially delightful is the arrangement of the movements, where we await the sublime Andante cantabile till after the Scherzo, where its arrival after nearly half an hour seems like a deliciously delayed gift; and the seamless gliding into the finale was like the fulfilment of a long-delayed promise.

This was a remarkable concert, that ended with a beautiful performance of this greatest of all piano trios, all the more so considering that this little ensemble was a mere temporary association of three gifted musicians.

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