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S & H Recital Review

Bach, Brahms, Shostakovich Yuri Bashmet (viola); Mikhail Muntian (piano). Barbican Hall, Thursday November 27th, 2003 (CC)


I had hardly expected such a full audience for a viola and piano recital – but then again, when the violist is Yuri Bashmet, perhaps this is less surprising. Only a couple of nights ago the same stage hosted a remarkable Twilight of the Gods: now, starting with a piece for solo viola, Bashmet could hardly have provided a greater contrast.

In fact the first piece on the programme was Bach’s Cello Suite in G, BWV1007, arranged for the viola by Fritz Spindler (1817-1905). Spindler is credited in the programme as having been ‘chamber musician with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’. An attentive audience fell under Bashmet’s spell (interestingly he used music throughout the recital). By imparting an almost disembodied feel to the Prelude and by emphasising higher voices by the subtlest of tenuti rather than by rougher accents, Bashmet created an atmosphere of suspended disquiet, counterbalanced by the characterful ‘Allemande’ (the programme notes refer to this ‘Allemande’ as robust - not here!). If in the ‘Courante’ Bashmet’s higher register belied little of the strain that can sometimes characterise his chosen instrument, it was perhaps the ‘Sarabande’ that lay at the very heart of Bashmet’s reading. His delicate half-voice meant that the almost gypsy slant of Menuet I acted in perfect contrast (itself setting off the melancholic Menuet II). Only the brief concluding Gigue seemed slightly awkward.

Brahms’ Viola Sonata No. 2 in E flat, Op. 120 is, of course, the Clarinet Sonata Op. 120 No. 2 of 1894. The case for the viola as soloist is that this is Brahms’ own version. Now joined by the veteran pianist Mikhail Muntial, this was a performance of the very highest integrity (the pair have recorded the two sonatas on RCA 09026 63293-2). Both players caught the wistful, autumnal quality of the Allegro amabile – Muntian’s warm sound was perfectly appropriate. The affectionate outpouring of the first movement was a true meeting of equals. Muntian shaded even the most simple figures with beauty and grace; Bashmet was hardly less impressive, the occasional tuning slip aside.

Brahms’ piano writing in the ensuing Allegro appassionato is on the imposing level of one of his solo piano sonatas, and Muntian fully rose to the challenge, and subsequently invoked an almost organ-like sonority in the Trio. Bashmet’s double-stopping was jaw-droppingly good, the two resultant voices completely independent of one another. But it was the titanic, rich piano writing and its realisation that lingers most in the memory.

Bashmet refused to be rushed in the Andante con moto of the finale. What was perhaps most impressive was the presentation of the first variation, here amounting to a deconstruction of the theme, while the remaining variations then acted as some sort of search for a recomposition. There was almost telepathic communication between the two players. Follow that …

Well, they did. Shotakovich’s Viola Sonata, Op. 147 is that composer’s last work (he was correcting proofs from his hospital bed just days before he died). Again, Bashmet and Muntian have recorded this (RCA 09026 61273-2, coupled with Sonatas by Glinka and Roslavets). Bashmet has also recorded the Shostakovich with Richter (on Regis RRC1128). The intensity of late-period Shostakovich hangs over the entire piece. It was correct, then, that Bashmet waited for complete silence before they began. When Bashmet entered, it was with a plangent line, on which he added very little vibrato. This is a bare, desolate and ultimately disquietening world. The sparser moments carried Webernian import and concentration. A Shostakovichian pointillism hung over a remarkable passage of disjunct single-line piano against Bashmet’s pizzicato. There was a manic desperation to the middle section of the first movement.

It was lovely that Muntian could play the Scherzo with a deliberate clumsiness, all part of the prevailing grotesquerie of this movement. References to street tunes were transformed into an horrific dance. Hardly surprising, then, that any harmonic arrival points on anything resembling a major triad became strangely disturbing in their dark decontextualisation.

No surprise for a late Shostakovich piece to end with an Adagio. Bashmet’s warm soliloquy was tremendously elegiac; Muntian’s piano dark and ominous. The astounding empathy enjoyed by these two musicians was evident at every point (they can dimunuendo exactly together, grading the speed of the volume loss perfectly). The distinctly valedictory aura of the close (how marvellous was Bashmet’s bow control here) left the audience stunned. It was surely absolutely correct that there should be no encore. To do so would have been sacrilege.

Colin Clarke



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