‘Russians & Jews’

Photo by Linda Hurst Photography

Chamber music series Byron Schenkman & Friends highlighted music by Russian Jewish composers Sunday night at Nordstrom Recital Hall. The program featured works from the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, bookended by an unfinished Glinka viola sonata and Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes.

At the beginning of the last century, many of these Russian Jewish composers, then students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, decided to form a society for Jewish music. The powers that be would only allow it as the Society for Jewish Folk Music, though their compositions were intended as as classical music per se. Schenkman brought in well-known klezmer violinist Steven Greenman to play several of those compositions inspired by Jewish melodies, some just with Schenkman’s piano accompaniment. 

I wish I could say it was a howling success, but while Greenman may be wonderful at klezmer, his performances of Joel Engel’s “Chabader Melodie” and “Freilachs Tanz,’ Joseph Achron’s “Sher” and Alexander Krein’s “Caprice Hebraique,” all seemed as though he was performing by rote, music learned rather than felt, no sense of passion or soul in his playing. This was particularly shown up by Nathan Whittaker’s expressive, singing cello on Solomon Rosowski’s “Fantastic Dance on a Hebrew Theme.”

Clarinetist Sean Osborn, violinist Liza Zerlinden and violist Jason Fisher joined the three for another work by Krein, “Esquisses Hebraiques.” The music’s nuances and shaping came forth in Osborn’s playing, ably abetted by Whittaker, especially in the second movement where cello and clarinet have duos over tremolos in the other instruments. The ensemble work throughout was less than perfect, sounding as though the group had had little time for rehearsal.

The concert began with Glinka’s Sonata in D Minor for viola and piano. It is always a treat to hear the viola in a prominent position, and Fisher’s eloquent playing made the most of this attractive work, just two movements of which exist.

Schenkman, one of the country’s best harpsichordists, tends to play the piano as he would a harpsichord. Where dynamics on a harpsichord are created by a second keyboard rather than by key pressure, on the piano it’s the way fingers touch the keys that gives nuance and creates volume changes, plus the use of pedals to accentuate different qualities. Much of Schenkman’s playing in this concert had little dynamic range or phrasing, and at times it was messy. An over-bright piano, brittle in its upper registers, didn’t help. 

The concert ended with the Prokofiev Overture for clarinet, strings and piano—with its delightfully quirky themes, probably the most successful performance on the program.