This the Viola – Boccherini, Schubert, Britten and Brahms in Rome

This the Viola – Boccherini, Schubert, Britten and Brahms: Daniel Palmizio (viola) and Giacamo Ronchini (piano): Oratorio del Gonfalone, Rome, 5.5.2011(JB)

Daniel Palmizio

The joke about the viola being a violin with a bad bout of flu goes straight out of the window when Daniel Palmizio picks up his instrument. Right away, with the two movements (Adagio and Allegro) of the Boccherini sonata no. 6 in A, his sound is shapely, purposeful, lyrical, businesslike and with a distinct sense of direction. There is immediately a double musical dialogue going on; the first is within the instrument itself – he creates, through beautifully graded tones, an admirable dialogue between one phrase and the next. The other is his dialogue with the audience: from the first bar he has powerfully engaged the audience in his music making. It is as though he has extraordinarily controlled the audience’s very breathing: an amazing communicator. Moreover, instrument and instrumentalist speak as one. He sounds as though he inhabits the viola. And only the greatest performers can manage that. And he is twenty-five.

That Boccherini sonata was originally for Luigi Boccherini’s own instrument, the cello. Violists have been shamefully neglected by composers and are so obliged to engage in some borrowing. The next piece was a more complicated bit of borrowing. Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata was written for his friend who played this weird instrument – a six-string fretted instrument, held like a cello and played with a bow. The instrument went out of use before it properly established itself. Interested readers can hear why by tuning in to a YouTube recording of the Arpeggione Sonata on that instrument. It sounds like a cello that got left out in the rain all night. No wonder the instrument became defunct. The recording of Schubert’s masterpiece was, however, recorded in Aldeburgh by Rostropovich and Britten. That is a CD which is frequently on my player. The recording by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax is equally fine. But the performance for viola and piano is also justified. Step forward the Palmizio, Ronchini duo.

Schubert was suffering from tertiary syphilis (See footnoted Ed) and subject to severe depression near the end of his life, when he wrote this piece. It belongs to the same period as the Quartet with the Death and the Maiden (his own Lied) variations. So the soul’s dark night is prevalent. However, in the Arpeggione, the sun keeps breaking through. And the pure warmth of Palmizio’s playing was remarkable. He takes us through the dark valleys with reassurance. It seems to me amazing that a twenty-five year old would be familiar with such a path. But assuredly, he is. It is largely the sheer beauty of his tone which the audience find so reassuring. Charm would be a misleading and too small a word for this playing. It is too authoritative for that.

There was an admirable sense of ensemble between viola and piano in the Arpeggione, some perfectly judged exchanges of musical conversation. A friend, whom I must now always remember to take with me to a concert, instantly spotted that the best place to sit would be in the Oratorio’s original (1590) choir stalls, with nothing between ourselves and the players. That guaranteed the intimacy that chamber music needs: they sounded as though they were playing just for us! And this perfection of balance was doubly welcome, since in the Boccherini, the pianist, Giacomo Ronchini, had decided that he was an “accompanist” and not a partner of a duo. He would wait to see what the violist did and then follow him. That waiting to see meant his lagging behind a fraction of a second, so that the two were never perfectly together. Mercifully, Mr. Ronchini became a fully-fledged member of the duo for the rest of the programme and the ensemble could not have been better.

There is another dialogue going on in Britten’s Lachrymae, op. 48 (1950), which the composer announces in the subtitle – reflections on a song of John Dowland. The song in question is If my complaints could passion move. The two young musicians certainly moved the audience in their sensitive performance of these variations. And what a setting they had for it! On this, I cannot do better than quote in full, Anthony Blunt’s Gonfalone entry in his indispensable 1982 Guide to Baroque Rome:

Now used as a concert hall. Built in 1544-7 and decorated in the 1590s with one of the most complete cycles of late 16th century frescoes surviving in Rome by Livio Agresti, F Zuccaro, Cesare Nebbia and others (scenes from the Passion). The façade was built by Domenico Castello.

The Flagellation of Federico Zuccaro (1540 – 1609) is almost uncanny in its depiction of perspective and depth. And those were both qualities which the two musicians picked up on admirably. The Dowland / Britten duo was perfectly represented.

Brahms’s two sonatas Op 102, for clarinet or viola with piano were also written near the end of his life. We heard the second. Brahms’s romanticism is altogether meatier than Schubert’s -heart on sleeve for some of the time. The Brahms clouds may be thicker than Schubert’s but his sun is consequently more powerful too. The two young men sounded thoroughly at home in this music. It was another love affair shared with an enthusiastic audience.

The Oratorio del Gonfalone is a small chapel, even including the magnificent original choir stalls, seating not more than a hundred and fifty. Since it was built specifically for music, the acoustic is perfect. In this intimate hall, music feels like a privilege. Which is what it should always be. It has a Board of Governors more distinguished than the Vatican itself, and including the Pope’s brother. So it is quite a good idea to leave your money at home and wear your chastity belt. (Happily, the boys were not wearing theirs: this was the sexiest performance I have ever heard.) I was surprised to see security forces engulfing the surrounding streets. But that turned out to be for Hilary Clinton, due to attend a dinner reception at one of Rome’s noble palaces. The two musicians sent us home with an appropriate encore of Schubert’s Litany ringing in our ears.

Jack Buckley


Jack Buckley received the following message from the distinguished British recital accompanist Graham Johnson, an undisputed authority in Schubert about the statement in this review that the composer suffered from tertiary syphilis. Mr Johnson writes:

Dear Jack,

I do enjoy reading your reviews. They give a vivid and elegant picture of music-making and cultural life in Rome, so thank you for including me on your list.

In your last piece I must beg to correct you on the subject of tertiary syphilis. Schubert contracted the disease in late 1822 or early 1823. In the Nlate autumn of 1824 (the time of the Arpeggione)he would still have been in the throes of the secondary stage of the disease, although over the worst.

In 1825 he was feeling a great deal better and had few further symptoms, 1826 was a gloriously social year and so on. There was perhaps a general weakening of his health but nothing to keep him from working. His death in November 1828 was due to an unrelated unrelated gastric infection. The fact is that tertiary syphilis, surely his destiny, never caught up with him. He was spared it by his death and composed gloriously until a week or so before he died. He would never have been able to compose with tertiary syphilis. If the tertiary “timetables” that afflicted Wolf and Schumann are anything to go by (20 and 32 years respectively after initial infection) Schubert would have experienced these symptoms – paralysis, dementia and worse, sometime in the 1840s. Many men who had syphilis in the 19th century died of other infections before the disease had managed to work its way slowly to the brain.

Yours ever, Graham