Wednesday night at Baruch College , the strings of the Attacca Quartet circled in, awash in a lethal mist of overtones as pianist Jeanne Golan played a low lefthand barroom riff. As the swirl grew more menacing, there was no doubt that violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee were going to snuff the life out of any and all possible revelry from the keys. Was that moment, from the third movement of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Quintet for Piano and String Quartet, meant as sweet revenge over the lockstep conformity that had driven the composer from one frying pan into another, from the Nazis to the Soviets? Or was it a depiction of the Nazis ruining the party for everyone?
Weinberg lived across the street from Dmitri Shostakovich for a time, and the two were great friends, so it’s tempting to choose the former answer. That’s bolstered by the fact that the influence of this piece is strongly felt in Shostakovich’s immortal String Quartet No. 7 – the one where he’s hunted down by the gestapo. And beyond playing together, four hands on the piano, and championing each others’ work, each composer’s repertoire bristles with irony and satire.
Or maybe Weinberg was being entirely straightforward. When he wrote this masterpiece in 1944, did he know that his entire family would be murdered at Auschwitz? Did have any inkling that a few years later, he’d be on death row in the Soviet gulag? It took the death of Stalin to facilitate Weinberg’s release.
If there’s ever been a composer who came face to face with evil, it was Weinberg. Golan told the crowd that she couldn’t have imagined a more apt choice to celebrate this Passover Week, “Recognizing exile and persecution, wherever it happens,” as she put it. And this was the piece de resistance on the bill. She and the quartet reveled in its epic dynamics and vast series of thematic shifts, capturing all of its raw angst, simmering anger and the muted horror that eventually closes it, subdued pizzicato and funereal piano fading as the graveyard looms ahead.
The ride there was almost as harrowing. Golan shifted as seamlessly as could be done, between woundedly glittering Rachmanonvian passages, icy nocturnal interludes, enigmatically jaunty boogie-inflected romps and circling pedalpoint that drew a straight line back to medieval Hasidic ngunim. The quartet had similarly vast terrain to cover, from icepick pizzicato, to distantly savage Bartokian acidity, to brooding, doomed conversational fragments, and clearly, they got it. It seemed as breathtaking for them to play as it was to witness.
Golan and Yee opened the night with Weinberg’s Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano, a 1958 piece that came across as a mashup of Ravel and Mompou, an enigmatic blend of astringent 20th century tonalities and eerie, circling belltone phrases, in addition to variations alluding to ancient Jewish liturgical melodies. The interplay and exchanges between Yee and Golan made for a grave conversation and numerous desolate/intricate contrasts.
Midway through, Golan treated the crowd to Weinberg’s 1951 Sonatine For Piano, a similar blend of modernist melodicism and classical gestures, with Jewish mysticism as a backdrop. Golan and the quartet have recorded these pieces for a forthcoming album; it comes as no surprise that Golan has also recorded works by another great Jewish composer of Weinberg’s era, Viktor Ullmann, who was even unluckier, but whose similarly dynamic body of work survived his murder in the Holocaust.
The Attacca Quartet’s next concert is a program TBA, on April 22 at 3 PM at the Presbyterian Church of Chatham Township, 240 Southern Blvd in Chatham Township, New Jersey.