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A Russian Musical Sandwich

Ptolemy Players: Spicy, Yet Filling

By Bogdan Fedeles

Staff Writer

Ptolemy Players

Killian Hall

Feb. 8, 7:30 p.m.

One of the few student-only chamber music groups at MIT, the Ptolemy Players enchanted a diverse audience last Saturday, with their programmatic performance of chamber music by Russian composers. The ensemble struck a wonderful balance in terms of choice of music, interpretation, and the overall length of the concert.

The program was comprised of lesser known pieces by Sergei Tanayev and Karen Khatchaturian mixed with two pieces by the more famous Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, everything framed by two string quartets of Shostakovich (hence the title on the program notes “The Shosti Sandwich”). Given the character of Russian music, the pieces performed followed one another harmoniously, almost like movements of one unifying piece, summing up a very cohesive program. And this remarkably well-chosen program received a remarkable performance.

The concert developed as a musical experience polarized between the intimate sonority of the string quartet and the dramatic expansion of the piano. The first and the last piece, movements from string quartets by Shostakovich, defined the musical archway of the entire evening, under which every other piece became a column. The first movement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 5, Op. 92, opened the program, with its unsettling sonorities and the repeated wandering motif in the viola part.

The four string players handled the piece admirably. The ensemble work and the good musical cohesion proved a good understanding of the piece and rendered its performance excellent.

By symmetry, the last two movements of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 73, concluded the evening. Another four, perhaps even more engaged string players delivered an incredible performance, full of fire and pathos. The subtleties of the unsettled slow movement surfaced gracefully, and in good taste, balancing the rhythmic wildness and sonoric expansion of the last movement, played with force yet very precisely.

The meat of the concert featured an amazing display of pianism. Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, Op. 34, became, in Ptolemy Players rendition, much more than a romantic vocal exercise. The warm voice of the tenor (Daniel Casasanto G) well captured the simple beauty of the melody, yet it was the careful, very musical piano accompaniment (Youssef M. Marzouk G), that gave contour to the piece.

Sergei Tanayev’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op. 22, highlighted a crystal clear technique and a good musical taste of the pianist (Jon R. Yi G), leaving the slightly unpolished string parts, in the middle ground. Yi gave the audience a good glimpse of the spirit of Russian music in its late Romantic phase, and although Tanayev’s music is less known in the West, he delivered the piece with a good level of familiarity and beauty, in a solid, well-thought performance.

The other less known piece, Karen Khatchaturian’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 1, received a solid, memorable performance as well. Karen Khatchaturian, the nephew of the more famous Aram Khatchaturian, although a living 20th century composer, relies heavily, at least in this early piece, on a tonal approach when using Russian folk-like motifs and themes.

However, the modern harmonic language is already insinuating, especially in the piano part, with many dissonances and avoided cadences. The bright and joyful violin part received a forceful, brilliant performance, joined by a well-played, although at times too loud, piano part.

Prokofiev’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op. 94, is the other duo performed by the Ptolemy Players. The witty character of Prokofiev’s music was admirably rendered through the piano part (Yukiko Ueno-Egozy), where the soft touch, sparkling technique and musical intensity contributed to the overall enjoyment of the piece. The flute counterpart (Ole Mattis Nielsen G) was engaging and pleasant, carefully mixing the piercing brilliance with the softness of the whisper. While in the second movement the flute sounded less involved, it picked up momentum to deliver in the third.

Overall, this Ptolemy Players’ concert was a very comfortable experience, long enough to get a good taste of the Russian musical spirit, (which can be even enhanced by some intriguing quotes on the back of the program notes,) yet concise and fervent. Given the high quality of these student performances and the striving for originality and peculiarity, we should be looking forward to Ptolemy Players’ next concert, in September, which will feature music from Vienna’s second school.