The classical music world lost one of its best violinists when Ida Levin died of leukemia in November 2016. Throughout her five-decade career, Levin appeared with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) more than 30 times, distinguishing herself across a wide and varied repertoire. She devised the program of Shostakovich, Beethoven, and Glazunov heard on January 10, intending to perform it herself.
Instead, the bill was played as a tribute to a singular artist gone too soon. Under the circumstances, it seemed impossible not to consider the selections through the lens of life, death, and legacy. But listening to six of Levin’s most frequent partners also brought to mind one of the most important, and often overlooked, aspects of musicmaking: the spirit of collaboration.
Music of foreboding
The opening piece, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, Op. 110, encompassed all of these elements. The 30-minute composition unfolds over five unbroken movements, barely allowing a moment for players or audience to catch their breath. A foreboding sense of death infuses the music, which the composer wrote during a period of anxiety and depression over his health and uncertain future.
The musicians communicated that spirit. First violinist Daniel Phillips drove the propulsive narrative forward with a mournful legato line, supported by second violinist Carmit Zori. Despite the composition’s overwhelming nature — at many points, the four instruments are played simultaneously, with a near-obsessive fervor — Phillips’s violin often seemed to be in genuine conversation with Marcy Rosen’s cello and Todd Phillips’s viola. Rosen relished the jagged edges of the Allegreto.
Pianist Cynthia Raim and cellist Peter Stumpf offered a performance of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major, Op. 102, No. 2, that highlighted the various conflicting moods created by the piece. The composer’s final cello sonata evokes not just the specter of mortality but the entire language of death and dying.
Raim and Stumpf created an aura of controlled chaos — particularly in the final movement, when piano and cello engage in a fugue-like counterpoint that can only be described as a dance of death. The overwhelmingly dissonant music conjures the image of a soul struggling to shuffle off its mortal coil. One need not imagine why this composition appealed to Levin as she faced her illness.
An appropriate finale
The recital ended with Alexander Glazunov’s String Quintet in A Major, Op. 39, which found Stumpf joining the quartet of string players. Glazunov was considered Tchaikovsky’s heir apparent, but his works are rarely heard here today. I understand why. This quintet, heavy on Russian folk influences and brimming with a bland major-chord Romanticism, didn’t strike my ear as brilliant, despite committed playing from all.
Yet it made an appropriate ending for this emotionally charged evening. After a first half dominated by melancholy music, the unchallenging simplicity of Glazunov’s quintet offered catharsis. Levin apparently loved the work, so it’s appropriate that it should be the final selection heard in her honor.
PCMS’s thoroughly moving tribute burnished Ida Levin’s already secure legacy. It will be hard to imagine future seasons without her presence, but the memories of her musicianship live on.