Frank Almond gives his all in a program of dark Russian masterpieces.
Introducing Dimitri Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio at Monday night’s Frankly Music concert, Frank Almond made the case for the Russian composer as the “Beethoven of the 20th century,” a remarkable achievement for a career that had to negotiate the apparatchiks of Stalinist Russia as well as the warring dogmas of modern classical music.
Little did Almond know that he’d be soon battling his own undeserved adversity. The dry, cold weather had taken its toll on the pads of his left-hand fingers, and after playing the trio’s first movement, the skin on his index finger had opened up, and he called for a handkerchief to deal with the bleeding.
He weathered on, altering the fingering in the Largo section to keep the wound off the fret board. By the final movement, he was visibly uncomfortable, but the trio (Almond, pianist William Wolfram and cellist David Requiro) completed the piece without too much compromise.
And the performance certainly made Almond’s case for it as one of the great piano trios ever written. Alternatingly haunting (the eerie harmonics that open the first movement), elegiac (the aching lines of the Largo) and sardonic (the frenzied Jewish dance motifs that darkly evoke the horror of the time—1944). It’s brazenly inventive—musically and conceptually.
Nothing held Almond back in the first half of the program, which featured a dazzling reading of Sergei Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata, written around the same time as Shostakovich’s trio, it sets an equally dark, contemplative mood. In the first movement, particularly, it’s as if the music is trying to summon the wherewithal to search for some sunlight, but never finds it. But it’s also a piece that flashes with explosive energy, and Almond and Wolfram delivered, particularly in the second movement, with driving machine-like rhythms, four-square piano clusters and violin double (and triple) stops.
The concert opened with Trio élégiaque No. 1, a very early work of Sergei Rachmaninoff. With a simple structure and old-fashioned melodic line, it was a striking contrast to the other two, more mature, works. But the trio made the most out of Rachmaninoff’s romantic, 19th-century lyricism.
Frankly Music’s next concert is in May, a “tango” program featuring bayan virtuoso Stas Venglevski.