So reads the neon sign on the staircase foyer wall of the Linde Family Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The work was acquired in 2011 with funds from its 2010-2011 Contemporary Art Visiting Committee that at the time included members of our audience.
As true as this statement is, in the life of most musical performers it is a rare privilege to introduce a work to the public, and to be able to perform it anew forty years later after it has become important in the history of our art. This will be our experience this week with Sonata for Viola and Piano Op. 147 (1975) by Dmitry Shostakovitch. In 1975 I performed its Boston area premiere as part of a faculty recital at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium with pianist Seth Carlin. I have since performed it at BCMS concerts in November 1993 with Randall Hodgkinson, and again in August 2005 with Mihae Lee.
In 1975 we knew the sonata was the final work of one who had lived through and responded creatively to repeated challenges from an oppressive Soviet regime. We learned since that, in a gesture of hommage to one who had broken the boundaries of his time, Shostakovitch quoted motifs and textures from two of Beethoven’s better-known solo piano sonatas. In time we recognized the first piano theme as a twelve-tone row: the very use of which Shostakovitch himself had previously denounced. What we didn’t know until many years later was that the middle movement is based on his pre-existent 1940’s opera sketch of Gogol’s sardonic play The Gamblers in which two swindlers are duped by their intended mark. The three-movement sonata concludes with some of the most transcendent music that Shostakovitch produced. Today we appreciate this work among the greatest of the past.
In our program Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147 (1975) is framed by two major works in minor keys: Schubert’s Quartettsatz D.703 (1820) in C minor, and Brahms’s great Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34 (1864-65) in the 150th year since it was first published.