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Shostakovich, Clarke, Bowen, Prokofiev:  Lawrence Power (viola), Simon Crawford Phillips (piano), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 22.1.2011 (GPu)

Shostakovich, Suite from The Gadfly (arranged Borisovsky)

Clarke, Viola Sonata

Bowen, Phantasy for Viola and Piano

Prokofiev, Five Pieces from Romeo and Juliet (arranged Borisovsky)

This was the first of an (initial?) series of four concerts, under the title ‘Performer Plus +’. The idea for the series – which apparently came from members of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – was that distinguished soloists who were working (in concerto performances) with the orchestra, either in concert or recording studio, might be invited to give recitals in the relatively intimate space of the Hoddinott Hall. Future concerts will feature violinist Jack Liebeck, cellist Alban Gerhardt and the Atos Trio, and the series will be broadcast by Radio 3 in May.

The advertised programme for this first concert in the series was made up of Schumann’s Marchenbilder, Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata, Brahms’ Viola Sonata in F minor and Vadim Borisovsky’s 1961 arrangement of Five Pieces from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. This attractive programme offered a good chronological and stylistic range and, in the Brahms, a work of real musical substance. It was disappointing, therefore, to find on arrival that (without explanation) the works by Schumann and Brahms had disappeared and been replaced by York Bowen’s Phantasy for Viola and Piano and another transcription by Borisovsky (violist with the Beethoven Quartet), of the Suite from Shostakovich’s film score The Gadfly (made in 1964).

Initial disappointment was soon overcome as Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips launched into the aforesaid transcription from Shostakovich. Power’s consummate technical assurance and the lyrical expressiveness of his playing were compelling, as was his control of tonal variety and the evident perfection of the partnership between the two musicians. The colours he brought to Borisovsky’s fine transcription were a wonder to hear and the whole suite was played with a winning vivacity and vigour.

Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata of 1921 is one of her best known works and, as has more than once been said, it displays a real understanding of the distinctive qualities of the instrument. Deeply grounded in the German sonata tradition, it also evidence her familiarity with French and contemporary English music; but such influences have been used to make something which is distinctively hers. Power and Crawford-Phillips were persuasive advocates for the work, whether in the colourfully demonstrative opening of the first movement, the striking harmonics of the vivace which follows or in the sensuous virtuosity of the final movement. The considerable technical challenges of the piece appeared to present not the slightest difficulty to Power, and the responsive subtlety of Crawford-Phillips' accompaniment was exemplary.

The Phantasy for Viola and Piano was one of the works Bowen wrote for Lionel Tertis; like the Clarke sonata it is a technically demanding piece – and once again Power rose above all such difficulties (this duo recorded the works on a 2-CD Hyperion set of Bowen’s complete works for viola and piano) and brought out such expressive power as the work contains. It would, in fact, be hard to imagine a superior performance of the work.

The closing work of the revised programme was Borisovsky’s transcription of Five Pieces from Romeo and Juliet. The interaction of Power and Crawford-Phillips was consistently alert and exciting, Power’s pizzicato work and varied bow weight as well as the sheer panache of some of his work quite splendid.

But, finally, it was hard not to feel that Power’s great abilities were, though by no means wasted, not really put to the best possible use in these transcriptions by Borisovsky. For all the profoundly impressive musicianship and technique on display in this programme, which overcame one’s initial disappointment at the disappearance from the programme of Brahms and Schumann it was, paradoxically, the sheer quality of Powers’ and Crawford-Phillips’ playing that made one, finally, renew one’s wish that that the partnership of Power and Crawford-Phillips had been heard in a work of undisputed musical substance like the Brahms sonata or a subtly-colourful piece of romantic imagination like the Schumann, not just the twentieth-century music they did play on this occasion; for that matter, given the existence of the viola sonatas by, say, Bax, Arnold, Bliss, Hindemith, Martinu or Reger (or, indeed, Shostakovich), it was a shame that half of this programme consisted of transcriptions. Having got that off my chest, let me reiterate what fine musicians these two are!

Glyn Pursglove


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