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Proms Chamber Music 12: J S Bach and Kodály: Maxim Rysanov (viola) and Danjulo Ishizaka (cello), Cadogan Hall, London, 30.8.2009 (BBr)

J S Bach: Suite No.4 in E flat major for solo cello BWV1010 (transcribed for viola by Simon Rowland Jones)

Kodály: Sonata for solo cello, op.8 (1915)

If there’s one thing composers understand it’s that when they conceive a work for a specific instrument they have the sound of that instrument in their head, they understand the full possibilities of that instrument and they write specifically for the sound of that instrument. Therefore, although a Harpsichord Concerto could be played on a modern piano – they are both keyboard instruments, after all – the whole feel of the music will be changed, and not always for the better.

Likewise, if you want to sing a song but it’s in a key which doesn’t suit your voice – it might be too high or too low – and you transpose it into another key more favorable for you, you are changing the very essence of the music. Imagine just what damage you would do to Brahms’s Vier Ernste Gesänge if you transposed them up a third or a fourth to suit a tenor or soprano voice.

It’s the same with Bach’s Cello Suites. Put them up an octave for the viola and you’ve lost the very soul of the music; the gravitas has gone, the plangent sound of the upper register of the cello cannot be duplicated on any instrument, and the power of the cello’s C string certainly cannot be matched on the viola. Whilst Maxim Rysanov gave a fine performance of the Bach Suite I was constantly reminded that it wasn’t quite right and started to think that this festival could have been used to put forward some very interesting repertoire, and it would have been accepted by the audience which had come, in many cases, to hear the performers and not the music. I found myself yearning to hear Rysanov championing something like Emánuel Moór’s Viola Sonata, op.78a. If only!

As soon as Danjulo Ishizaka launched into Kodaly’s Cello Sonata it threw into sharp relief the weakness of the Bach arrangement. Not that the Kodaly is a masterpiece. It’s a virtuoso work, seeming to require a cellist with three hands, but like so much Kodály it’s overlong and the interest wains long before the close of the piece. It goes without saying that Ishizaka should have played the Bach Suite!

Excellent performances from both players.

Bob Briggs

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