The night Joseph Stalin died 50 years ago, his enemies, real and imagined, could breathe a little easier. Unfortunately, one of those who would have enjoyed greater peace of mind also died that same night - Sergei Prokofiev, who, like Dmitri Shostakovich, knew all too well about official disfavor during the Stalin era.
On Tuesday, the Peabody Institute commemorated the exact semi-centennial of Prokofiev's death with a substantial, exceptionally well-played program of Russian chamber music. Michael Kannen, director of chamber music at the school, packed a little too much material into the occasion, but assembled ideal forces to deliver it. The roster included not just some of Peabody's top faculty artists and gifted students (Moscow-born players among them), but a major guest artist - violinist Mikhail Kopelman, former leader of the Borodin String Quartet, Russia's premier chamber ensemble.
A memorial mood was established at the start with Anton Arensky's unendingly melodic Piano Trio in D minor, written to eulogize a cellist friend; the endearing performance was by Kannen, violinist Keng Yuen Tseng and pianist Marian Hahn. That mood continued with the popular Andante Cantabile movement from Tchaikovsky's Quartet No. 2, which is linked directly to the dual deaths of Prokofiev and Stalin. It was played by the Borodin Quartet first during a hastily arranged, very brief wake for Prokofiev, and then, in another hall across Pushkin Square in Moscow, played almost round-the-clock during a three-day public viewing of Stalin's body.
Kopelman (successor to the Borodin violinist who participated in that funereal marathon) brought authority and great elegance to the first chair here, joined by violinist Letitia Nyirjesy, violist Maria Lambros and Kannen.
Three Prokofiev items were on the bill. His Sonata for Two Violins, a work full of contrapuntal energy, received a bright, firmly meshed account from eminent pedagogue Victor Danchenko and one of his students, Igor Yuzefovich. Kannen, Lambros, Nyirjesy and Hahn teamed up with clarinetist Edward Palanker and violinist Misha Rosenker to deliver a swaying account of the klezmer-spiced Overture on Hebrew Themes. And, as an encore, a movement from Prokofiev's Quintet was colorfully played by a student group as accompaniment to a brief ballet performed by Peabody dance students.
For all of the focus on Prokofiev, the night ended up belonging to his fellow victim of Stalinist culture wars, Shostakovich. His Piano Quintet offers an almost uncomfortable window into his innermost, often very bleak, thoughts. A slice or two of wry provides contrast and, by the end, leads the way out of the darkness. This arresting work inspired terrific music-making - technically refined, emotionally charged - from Kopelman, Rosenker, violist Victoria Chiang, cellist Alan Stepansky and pianist Boris Slutsky.
There was an ironic twist to programming the Quintet. Shostakovich received the Stalin Prize for it in 1940, but the score wasn't universally admired. Its harshest critic was Prokofiev.