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Auerbach-Weilerstein do Keys Aplenty

Jeff Dunn on April 9, 2010

“It was somewhat excessive,” recalled Lera Auerbach onstage, understating the compulsion she felt in 1999 to keep composing preludes. Not satisfied after creating 24 of them for piano, one for every possible key signature (C major, A minor, and so on), she produced a second set of 24 for piano and violin. Far from exhausting her, this only whetted her appetite, so she wrote a third 24 for cello and piano.

Shostakovich’s and Auerbach’s Key Concepts
Illustration by Jeff Dunn

Still not preluded out, Auerbach completed Dmitri Tsyganov’s arrangement for violin and piano of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 preludes the next year, and later rearranged that set for cello and piano — 96 different preludes in all. Last Tuesday night in Herbst Theatre, a rapt and lucky San Francisco Performances audience got to hear Alisa Weilerstein emote magnificently the entire 48 for cello, with Auerbach herself accompanying on the piano.

And what a pair of sets these preludes were! Each was a universe of moments unto itself. Although both composers broadcast powerfully again and again the soulfulness of their Russian homeland within the confines of short forms, their approaches were opposite in most respects, especially in regard to tonality, the reason the 48 pieces are said to be in various “keys”.

In this music of 1932-33, Shostakovich tried to do everything he could to get out of whatever key he was supposedly in. The result is a satire on the form that Bach made famous in his 24-key Well-tempered Klavier. Shostakovich used all the other musical elements at his disposal to defy listener expectations: There are sudden dissonances interrupting consonances, weird scalar passages out of nowhere, abrupt changes in tempo, out-of-tune references to café music and oompah bands — in short, listeners are jerked around like a football grabbed at by five linesmen, in turn, after a fumble.

Yet the music is enjoyable, propelled by the irrepressible energy of the youthful composer’s 1930 opera The Nose, recently produced at the Metropolitan Opera, which has been described as “a blistering mixture of laughter and rage.” Unlike the two-hour opera, which exhausts the listener after 30 or 40 minutes, the Preludes are over by that time, and contain music of a more serious nature, like the funereal No. 14 in E-flat Minor, or the dolorous No. 22 in G Minor.

Acknowledging the Past

In contrast to the mocking tone of much of the Shostakovich, faithfully maintained and enhanced by Auerbach the arranger, it became clear that Auerbach the composer has a more reverent view of 18th- and 19th-century music and its keys. She is one of a few composers alive today still using opus numbers, and she states expressly at the beginning of her program notes that “Reestablishing the value and expressive possibilities of all major and minor tonalities is as valid at the beginning of the 21st century as it was during Bach’s time.”

Auerbach’s music, while employing many of the extended performance practices developed during the modernist period, is unabashedly both Romantic and postmodernly polystylistic. The Romantic side comes through in her performance directions: Andante misterioso, Allegro obsessivo, Tragico, Adagio sognando (“dreaming”), Allegro appassionato, Andante nostalgico. The polystylism shows up in the blues-influenced No. 8 in F-sharp Minor (“Grave”); the Bachlike Nos. 9 in E Major, 13 in G-flat Major, and 14 in E-flat Minor; the Haydnesque dance of No. 18 in F Minor; and the Habanera of No. 22 in G Minor.

Throughout, the rhetoric of her illustrious Russian predecessors Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky shows up in her love of low piano notes and gift for melody, yet her music is never pastiche, and is laced with plenty of modernisms (not the least of which is an admirable concision) that make her music sound fresh. Overall, I found this set of preludes far better than her slightly earlier one for violin and piano, which doesn’t contain as much variety.

Auerbach could not have found a more sympathetic cellist than Alisa Weilerstein for her music. The cellist’s passion never flagged, the sense of drama in every movement was palpable, the technique was dazzling — I had never seen any cellist play any music as fast as the way Weilerstein whipped through the Shostakovich Prelude No. 5, with its insane metronome marking of 200 beats to the minute. The Shostakovich music, in particular, was arranged for a lot of deliberately ugly sounds near the instrument’s bridge, plus staccato attacks with the bow, so beauty of tone was not a priority, leading to some rare intonation errors. In the Auerbach, however, Weilerstein shone like gold. Pianist Auerbach, through her excellent playing and deference to her partner, helped amplify the shine.

The program presented the ostensible situation of the same musical form written by two composers, thus provoking listeners to compare the two. But a fair comparison is not possible, since the second composer, Auerbach (and the previous arranger, Tsyganov), is responsible for the deployment of the instrumentation in the Shostakovich work, originally written solely for piano. I would rate the “Shostakovich” instrumentation inferior to that employed in Auerbach’s own music. Too often in the Shostakovich, cello and piano were playing at the same time, and not all the lines given to the cello were idiomatic. The piano should have been given more prominence, befitting the music’s source. (Admission: I am a pianist, and love the 88 keys as much as Auerbach loves her and Shostakovich’s 24.)

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