Thought-provoking viola and piano music at St. John’s

Brahms, Joachim, Schumann, Fribbins and Shostakovich: Eniko Magyar (viola), Diana Brekalo (piano). St John’s Smith Square, London, 10.6. 2011 (CG)

Brahms : Sonata for Viola and Piano op. 120 no. 1 (1894)
Joachim : Hebrew Melodies op. 9 (1854-5)
Schumann : Adagio and Allegro op. 70 (1849)
Peter Fibbins : Fantasias for Viola and Piano (2007 and 2011) First performance
Shostakovich : Sonata for Viola and Piano op. 147 (1975)

With fire and passion Magyar and Brekalo launched into the Brahms sonata; straight away there could be no doubting the authority of these two young performers. They caught the drama of the first movement vividly, contrasting the powerful sections with moments of equally affecting poetry. The second movement’s long expressive melody was beautifully shaped by Magyar, and in the allegretto she made the considerable technical difficulties sound almost easy, with Brekalo demonstrating her formidable technique and musicianship too. Drama returned with the final vivace, with power or lightness in evidence whenever required. This was altogether a hugely dynamic and enjoyable performance and although the work’s origins were as a sonata for the clarinet, the viola’s rich and dark sonority showed itself to be superbly suited to the autumnal moods of Brahms.

The comparatively simple textures of the Joachim were also well managed – Magyar singing darkly, with Brekalo, now in accompanying mode, doing so entirely sympathetically. Then came the Schumann, originally composed for the horn with later versions for the violin and cello. Schumann had in mind the then-new development of the valve horn – the melody of the adagio is chromatic and would be impossible to play on the natural horn which preceded it. Notwithstanding its origins, the piece works perfectly well when transcribed onto the viola, composed, as it is, in his rather wistful song-mode. The Allegro, which contrasts a lively rondo theme with more poetic episodes including mentions of material from the Adagio, sparkled perfectly.

It is common knowledge that composers have almost made a habit of overlooking the viola; there are comparatively few concertos, and players are not even blessed with an enormous array of solo chamber pieces – certainly not when compared to the violin or cello. Already, two of the pieces performed so far this evening had started life for different instruments. Interesting, then, that the two works heard in the second half were conceived specifically for the viola. Peter Fribbins, born in 1969, has a considerable amount of chamber works to his credit and recently had a new Piano Concerto performed by tonight’s pianist. His Fantasies for Viola and Piano are in fact two pieces inspired by folk elements, the first Welsh, the second Hungarian. Fribbins writes in a style which is immediately communicative and yet he always avoids the blatantly obvious. The first piece begins with sparse piano notes and quiet trills from the viola, and gradually the folksy elements become more apparent. There is some filigree work from the viola and the piece achieves more and more momentum with chords from the piano eventually becoming rather strident. Then the textures from the opening return and the piece fades gently away. It is enormously effective and really rather beautiful. The second piece counterpoints long expressive lines in the viola with scalic passages from the piano and things take on a definitely Hungarian turn, ending with a question mark. Again, a most effective piece.

Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano is the very last thing he wrote, and what an extraordinary creation it is. He had lived through immense personal and national upheavals and tragedies; the hope of the 1920’s, the artistic repression of Stalin, the brutal violence of the Second World War, the relative optimism of the Kruschev era, and the depression of the Brezhnev years. He had reacted to all this in his music, and never more so than in his chamber works, when he could allow full rein to his innermost thoughts even more directly than in his symphonies. So it is that the Viola Sonata is an intensely private work. He had been sick for a number of years, and Fyodor Druzhinin, the distinguished violist whom Shostakovich consulted when composing the work, reported that the composer could hardly write the notes because his hands were shaking so badly. Undoubtedly aware of his imminent demise, Shostakovich quoted from his own works and those of others too. The first movement, marked moderato, is in a fairly straightforward sonata form with a quote from his incomplete opera, The Gamblers. There are strangely simple arpeggios which are to recur later, and the music is bare and superficially rather dry, but there are certainly memories of terror here too. The second movement is wild and dance-like with plenty of virtuoso passages – it is almost gypsy-like, but also ironic or even sarcastic.

The third and final movement is the most extraordinary, and at some fifteen minutes, the most substantial. Central to it are short quotations from Beethoven’s 溺oonlight・Sonata, and the famous arpeggios in the piano part become a prominent feature. Shostakovich always identified with Beethoven; both composers became isolated and retired into their music, even if for different reasons. The whole movement is supremely quiet and sparse, and dies away, almost reluctantly, into nothingness; it’s as if the composer dies with it, and in fact he passed away a mere three days after handing the completed score to Druzhinin.

Obviously this is music which demands extreme concentration from the performers, and this they certainly gave it. The whole performance was utterly spellbinding.

Altogether, this was a most thought-provoking evening of superb music making.

Christopher Gunning