Stars align to honor human-rights champion Sakharov at Carnegie

Mon May 22, 2023 at 12:19 pm
Composer-pianist Lera Auerbach performed music of Rachmaninoff at at a concert in honor of Andrei Sakharov Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

What would it take to bring international stars such as violinists Gidon Kremer and Maxim Vengerov, pianists Evgeny Kissin and Lera Auerbach, cellist Steven Isserlis and the Emerson String Quartet together on one afternoon to make chamber music in Carnegie Hall?

On Sunday, the question was not what, but who. And the answer was Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), the nuclear physicist sometimes called the “father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb,” who soon saw the need for a world of international peace and recognition of human rights, and who spoke and wrote about it tirelessly, in spite of official repression, earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

“Sakharov was my hero for as long as I can remember,” Kissin has said. In 2020, with the physicist’s 100th birth anniversary approaching, the pianist began organizing a tribute concert in collaboration with the human-rights-oriented Andrei Sakharov Foundation and Carnegie Hall.

A pandemic intervened, but on May 21, 2023, which would have been Sakharov’s 102nd birthday, the musical tribute came off, with a near-capacity house taking in nearly three hours of lively music-making with ten musicians performing works by six composers. And almost no speeches.

There were a few welcoming remarks from Arkady Ostrovsky, the Russia and eastern Europe editor for The Economist in London, at the invitation of the Sakharov Foundation. Pianist-composer Auerbach recited “The Pain of Others,” a human-rights-themed poem of her own in both Russian (understood by a sizable portion of Sunday’s audience) and English.

After that it was music all the way, beginning with violinist Kremer alone onstage performing Requiem, a four-minute piece by the Georgian composer Igor Loboda. Described (in Harry Haskell’s informative program notes) as “a short meditation on a Ukrainian folk song” about the River Dnieper, the music surges at first, then dies away in a trickle of left-hand pizzicato. That was the nearest thing to an explicitly political message sent all afternoon.

But maybe a close second was the Latvian duo of Kremer and pianist Georgijs Osokins, citizens of a former Soviet republic, performing the Violin Sonata No. 4 by Mieczysław Weinberg, who during World War II jumped from the frying pan of Polish anti-Semitism into the fire of Soviet arts control. Weinberg’s 1947 sonata, a whirling, demonic scherzo framed by two more thoughtful movements, was daringly modern for that time and place. On Sunday, it also displayed the young pianist’s feathery touch and brilliant technique, and the veteran Kremer’s silvery tone and dramatic timing.

Then it was time for something completely (and gorgeously) different, pianist Auerbach in three Rachmaninoff pieces that seemed to make the Steinway grand melt into a puddle of swirling colors: the well-known G major Prelude, Op., 32, no. 5, rippling and singing softly in the middle range, then suddenly blooming in the bass; the Étude-Tableau in A minor, Op. 39, no. 2, an amorous duet for tenor and soprano voices; and the Étude-Tableau in C major, Op. 33, no. 2, building almost imperceptibly from tender pianissimo to a vibration of trills at the end.

It was hard, in a way, to part with such individual visions for the more regulated give-and-take of chamber music with piano and strings. But what a pianist, and what strings.

Maxim Vengerov, Steven Isserlis and Evgeny Kissin performed Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 on Sunday. Photo: Chris Lee

The rest of the concert might have been titled Kissin and Friends: the pianist with Vengerov and Isserlis in Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, with Vengerov in Brahms’s Violin Sonata No 2 in A major, and with the Emerson Quartet in Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major. (That lineup of pieces would have made quite a meaty concert program all by itself.)

The three players, star soloists all, made a surprisingly unanimous trio in the Shostakovich, ghostly in the first movement, scaldingly brilliant in the whiplash Allegro con brio, eloquent over granitic piano chords in the Largo, and stepping smartly to the irresistible Jewish dance tune in the finale.

That bold finale was a reminder that the Russian composer’s interest in Jewish expression in Soviet society was echoed a generation later by the natural alliance between the rights advocate Sakharov and the “refuseniks” of the U.S.S.R., mostly Jews whose applications to emigrate to the U.S. or Israel had been refused by authorities.

It was surely no coincidence that Jewish musicians comprised most of the players onstage Sunday. And no doubt some former refuseniks were among the attendees chatting in Russian during the intermission.

After the break, Vengerov brought sweet tone and sustained line to all three movements of the Brahms sonata. One might argue that, even in a piece marked “Allegro amabile,” Kissin’s fluid technique needed a little more heft to produce a really Brahmsian sound, but the two made a most cordial and sensitive duo.

Evgeny Kissin and the Emerson Quartet performed Dvořák’s Piano Quintet Sunday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

It was noble of the Emerson Quartet—violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins—to pause their farewell tour for this event, advertised as their “final Carnegie Hall appearance.”  One felt a pang that they had to do so playing second fiddle to a piano, but that’s life for string players in the Schumann-Brahms-Dvořák universe. At least Dvořák gave each player his moment in the sun, especially favoring the viola and the cello with distinctive themes.

The quintet’s first movement was rich in singing lines and ebullient development. Kissin and the quartet shifted gears seamlessly in the changing tempos of the Dumka movement. The Scherzo (Furiant) sparkled and flirted, and Kissin tripped the light fantastic in the fast and funny finale.

One hoped there were plenty of human-rights campaigners in the audience, because this concert’s brilliant finish would surely re-energize them for the work. Happy birthday, Dr. Sakharov.

2 Responses to “Stars align to honor human-rights champion Sakharov at Carnegie”

  1. Posted May 22, 2023 at 7:51 pm by Alex

    There was also a brilliant encore, scherzo from Shostakovich’ Piano Quintet ! Sarcasm and humor, the weapons of the oppressed… The encore too was wonderfully performed, and a great conclusion to the concert.

  2. Posted May 23, 2023 at 1:55 pm by Thomas Z. Shepard

    What an incredible collection of world-class players. A most beautiful and heartfelt concert. I feel so privileged to have been invited.

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