Yelena Grinberg Rescues Rare Classical Treasures from Obscurity

For the last six years, pianist Yelena Grinberg‘s salon has become an Upper Westside institution. The lost treasures of the classical world couldn’t wish for a more enthusiastic, insightful advocate. The energy she put into finding them, and then bringing them back to life is astonishing. For context, she mixes in some of the more popular chamber works that you might see at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, although, realistically, all of this repertoire deserves such a wide audience. Grinberg is a generous hostess and fascinating to talk to. So many professional musicians are blase about their work. Grinberg is 180 degrees the opposite, a tirelessly passionate historian and interpreter of forgotten gems..

At Salon number 186 last weekend, Grinberg’s focus was on works for piano, flute and viola. She explained that she’d found exactly one, from an unexpected source: Tatiana Nikolayeva, best known as a virtuoso concert pianist and major interpreter of Shostakovich. Alongside that one, Grinberg added a piano/flute/viola arrangement of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp. There was also music for flute and piano, and flute and viola, delivered in high resolution. In addition to an extensive concert program, Grinberg gave the audience a detaiiled rundown of each work: she’s as entertaining a tour guide as the tour itself.

The musicianship was topnotch. Flutist Jessica Taskov played meticulously, from ripe, full-toned lows to sturdy swaths of sound and bright, sharply executed accents. This concert was also a rare opportunity to see the great violist Ljova, a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin playing other peoples’ music: he’s been one of New York’s leading composer-performers for over a decade.

The highlight of the program was the Weinerg piece, opening with troubled, slowly unfolding exchanges between flute and viola over an ominous implied pedalpoint. Grinberg’s spiky accents and occasional glissandos energized the desolate call-and-response, up to what came across as a twisted parody of a klezmer dance. Clearly, the horrors the composer had survived, first from the Nazis, and then the Soviets, still lingered when he wrote it in 1979. Having witnessed the Philharmonic playing Corigliano’s terrifying Symphony No. 1 the previous night, this carried even more of a wallop.

Nikolayeva’s eight-part suite turned out to be as delightful a mix of flavors as a composer can possibly pack into about twenty minutes: baroque dances, a puckishly precise scherzo, moody contemplation from flute and viola, allusions to a Balkan bagpipe tune, a slow, starry waltz and finally a clever, Spanish-tinged variation that brought the music full circle. Was this a New York premiere? Or even a North American one?

Likewise, Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style for Violin and Piano (flute playing the violin part) explored familiar tropes from the baroque and onward: a lilting Sicilienne, a strutting ballet and n unexpectedly serioso duet with more than a hint of Mozart. The fugue was where Grinberg’s passion for Bach made itself the clearest, with perfect articulation on the keys that managed at the same time not to be fussy.

Grinberg characterized Alexander Zhurbin‘s piano and viola arrangement of the Waltz from his opera Doctor Zhivago, as “buoyant and passionate,” and she nailed its dynamic neoromanticisms in tandem with the younger Zhurbin (Ljova is Alexander’s son). The two closed with Anton Rubenstein’s Viola Sonata in F Minor, which as Ljova explained, is full of “macho energy.” The violist went deep into the composer’s rich low-register sonics, contrasting with the deviously sotto-voce harmonics of the third movement. And the piece is just as much of a concerto for piano, but Grinberg dug in for its cruelly challenging, stabbing, Schumann-style chordal runs.

The next salon is sold out; after that, Grinberg is offering a fantastic program on June 19 at 7 and the June 23 at 5 PM, with Rachmaninoff’s shattering Trio Elegiaque, along with the famous Arensky piano trio plus lesser known works by Tschaikovsky and Myaskovsky. The salon webpage accepts reservations; you can email the impresario for additional information. If you’re coming from outside the neighborhood, it’s about two minutes from the 96th St. stop on the 1/2/3 – exit at the front of the train.