On Sunday afternoon, Carnegie Hall hosted a concert in honor of Andrei Sakharov. The date was May 21—Sakharov’s birthday. The great physicist and human-rights champion lived from 1921 to 1989.

Why was this concert held? I have no idea. But it’s always a good idea to honor Sakharov, perhaps especially now: Vladimir Putin has re-Sovietized Russia. He has abolished civil society and independent media. There are now more political prisoners in Russia than there were in the late Soviet period.

This has been documented by Memorial, which is the leading civil-society and human-rights organization in Russia. “Is”? “Was”? Memorial has now been banned.

It was started by Sakharov and his friends. They also started the Moscow Helsinki Group, which has been banned. The Andrei Sakharov Foundation has been banned.

All of that, gone. (For a piece I wrote on this subject—the re-Sovietization of Russia—go here.)

Before Sunday’s concert began, a man took the stage to deliver introductory remarks. He was Arkady Ostrovsky, a veteran Russia correspondent, who works at The Economist. Following him to the stage was Lera Auerbach, who recited a poem—a poem from her own pen. “The Pain of Others,” it’s called. As Auerbach noted, before she recited her poem, Sakharov had a feeling for the pain of others.

I had always known Lera Auerbach as a composer—a composer of music. It turns out that she is a poet and a pianist, too. During the concert, she played three pieces by Rachmaninoff: a prelude and two études-tableaux. A talented, versatile woman, obviously.

The concert began with a piece for solo violin, by Igor Loboda, a Georgian born in 1956. The piece is called “Requiem.” According to the afternoon’s program notes, the piece is “a short meditation on a Ukrainian folk song.”

Loboda wrote it in 2014 for Lisa Batiashvili, his fellow Georgian. I will once more quote the program notes:

Batiashvili made headlines when she encored the work as a protest at the close of a concert with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra led by Valery Gergiev, a prominent apologist for Russia’s military incursions in Ukraine and Georgia.

Maestro Gergiev is a very close ally of Putin. Last year, the Anti-Corruption Foundation issued a report on Gergiev, and what his alliance with Putin has meant.

The Anti-Corruption Foundation is the organization of Alexei Navalny, who is the leader of the political opposition in Russia, and therefore a political prisoner (now enduring solitary confinement).

In Carnegie Hall, Loboda’s Requiem was played by Gidon Kremer, the veteran Latvian. He was then joined by a young pianist, another Latvian, Georgijs Osokins. They played the Violin Sonata No. 4, Op. 39, of Mieczysław Weinberg. Kremer has been a steadfast advocate of Weinberg. 

On Sunday afternoon, Kremer played with soul. That is one of his outstanding qualities: soul. He knows what he believes, musically and otherwise, and it comes out in his playing.

To conclude the first half of the concert was a trio by Shostakovich: his Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67. This piece is thoroughly Shostakovich-like. Utterly characteristic. And it was done justice by the three musicians who gathered to play it.

They were Evgeny Kissin (piano), Maxim Vengerov (violin), and Steven Isserlis (cello). Each is a prominent soloist, but they gelled as a chamber ensemble. They played with intelligence and purpose. The music was strange, ambiguous, compelling—again, Shostakovich-like, and thoroughly so.

Vengerov made his usual magnificent sounds. In the final movement, he had just the right kind of jauntiness—offhanded, whimsical, creepy. For twenty years, I have thought, “He is one of the most musical beings alive.”

The concert was sold out. Carnegie Hall was full of Russian-speakers. This was not the usual concert-going crowd, I sensed. People kept coming in late, in large numbers. They applauded in odd places—for example, while Gidon Kremer was concluding Requiem. They took videos. When ushers told them not to do so, they stopped. And quickly resumed.

To begin the second half of the program, Vengerov and Kissin came out for a sonata. But several audience members were arguing, at the back of the orchestral level. They were arguing about who was supposed to sit where. They went on and on, heedless of the players waiting on the stage, heedless of the shushing by the rest of the audience.

Vengerov looked at the scene with what I thought was mild amusement.

Finally, he and Kissin played the Brahms Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100. They played it in Brahmsian fashion. They played it with masculine warmth. Really, they should take their show on the road. They should record the Brahms sonatas.

I think of violin-piano pairings past. Kreisler and Rachmaninoff. Thibaud and Cortot. Szeryng and Rubinstein. Milstein and Horowitz. Perlman and Ashkenazy. On and on. Nikolaj Znaider and Yefim Bronfman have recorded the Brahms sonatas (first-rate). On the strength of Sunday afternoon, I would like to have all three from Vengerov and Kissin.

Let me stress that it was especially heartening to see, to hear, Vengerov in such fine form. As I understand it, he went through a period of physical difficulties—difficulties that hampered his playing. On Sunday, he sounded like himself.

The concert ended with Dvořák—his Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81. Mr. Kissin teamed up with the Emerson String Quartet.

About Andrei Sakharov and his greatness, much has been written. I have done some writing myself, particularly in a history of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Sakharov received this award, in absentia, in 1975.) I would like to make a single point here and now.

Sakharov was at the top of the Soviet heap. He was a star in the nomenklatura. He was one of the most honored scientists—one of the most honored men—in the whole USSR. Three-time Hero of Socialist Labor. The Lenin Prize. The Stalin Prize. And he threw it all away, to stand up for the truth and for human rights. He had it made—and he gave up every privilege, every comfort, to take his stand. He suffered terribly, as a consequence of his truth-telling.

Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and other political prisoners are going through their own torments right now. Perhaps in honoring Sakharov, this concert honored them too.

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