Benjamin BRITTEN (1813-1976)
Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of Dowland, Op. 48 (1950) [13:40]
George ROCHBERG (1918-2005)
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1979) [19:36]
Arvo PäRT (b. 1935)
spiegel im spiegel (1978) [11:55]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147 (1975) [33:22]
Peter Minkler (viola); Lura Johnson (piano)
rec. 4-7 August 2008, Morgan State University, Baltimore, U.S.A.
CENTAUR CRC3049 [78:36]
The word “Reflections” in the subtitle of Britten’s Lachrymae is an important one, as this is a rather more complex affair than a simple set of variations. Anyone interested in the procedures the composer adopted should seek out Paul Hamburger’s chapter in Benjamin Britten, a commentary on his works from a group of specialists, edited by Donald Mitchell and Hans Keller and published in 1952. The Dowland song is If my complaints could passions move. As he was later to do in another Dowland-based work, the guitar piece Nocturnal, Op. 70, Britten only presents the theme in full at the end. This melancholy, spectral piece is one of Britten’s lesser known works, but it is a beautiful and satisfying one. Its closing pages are in particular, profoundly moving.
George Rochberg’s sonata appeared in 1979, but the composer’s widow is quoted in the booklet as saying that the work was begun much earlier. The musical language is less advanced than Britten’s. Indeed, we read in the booklet that Rochberg was ostracised by the American musical establishment of the day for his decision in the early 1970s to return to tonality and to what he called “the art of beauty”. His Viola Sonata is certainly a beautiful work. The first movement is primarily fast moving, its dotted rhythms sometimes playful, sometimes rather more dramatic. It closes quietly and most effectively. A series of sombre chords supports the viola’s melody at the beginning of the slow movement, marked Adagio lamentoso. These two movements run for almost eighteen minutes, but the finale, marked Fantasia: Epilogue has a duration of only three, and this, I think, is the work’s only weakness. Is it meant, in some way, to sum up what has gone before? Difficult, as the two preceding movements are really quite different, one from the other. The ending is certainly atmospheric, and there is plenty of incidental interest and beauty on the way, but the overall form of the work leaves one wondering.
Arvo Pärt’s spiegel im spiegel is probably the most familiar work in this collection. I never know whom to feel sorriest for when I hear this work, the pianist, condemned to repeat endlessly similar arpeggios without the slightest recourse to rhythmic variety, or the instrumental soloist whose scales, beginning with just two notes and adding a note each time, must seem equally interminable. That it casts a powerful spell is undeniable – and it certainly lingers in the mind long after it is over – but it is not a piece that this listener wants to hear very often.
Death haunts the pages of most of Shostakovich’s late works, and of his Viola Sonata in particular, completed only a few weeks before he died. The first movement opens with a rhythmic pizzicato figure across the viola’s strings, and this has an important role to play in the movement, returning at one point in the piano with an eerie viola tremolando figure high above it. This is music that goes beyond melancholy, despondency or even despair; it touches, in a way difficult to describe, something far deeper in the human experience. The second movement is a scherzo, and there are certainly high spirits here, though they are muted and equivocal, making one seek, as so often with the composer, the exact message behind the notes. The finale, an Adagio, is as long as the other two movements put together. After the opening viola solo there is a lightly disguised but unmistakable allusion to the opening of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. This deeply moving meditation on mortality finally comes to rest on a long, held major chord. Is this acceptance? Has the composer, after a lifetime of struggling with demons – political, personal, musical – at last come to terms with what lies ahead? Getting to know this masterpiece, bleak and spare though it be, is an enriching experience, the essence of art.
This disc carries a dedication in honour of William Primrose and Yuri Temirkanov, the last-named once Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and, incidentally, the artist responsible for the quirky line drawing of Shostakovich on the front cover of the CD booklet. There is a really excellent and personal booklet note by Peter Minkler, and the disc is beautifully recorded with just the right distance between the musicians and the listener and an ideal balance between the two instruments. The performances themselves are very fine indeed, with Lura Johnson offering her soloist particularly commanding and imaginative support from the piano. The only performance I have any doubts about is that of the Pärt, which seems dangerously and unnecessarily slow. The textures are unsupported when both instruments are playing in the higher register, and there are times when Minkler seems worryingly short of bow at the end of long held notes. Collectors who would prefer the Hindemith Sonata to Pärt and Rochberg should try to find Paul Silverthorne’s very fine 1994 disc on Koch on which he also plays the Britten and the Shostakovich. Otherwise I warmly welcome this most beautiful recital of four very different, yet complementary, twentieth-century viola works.
A highly satisfying recital of four very different, yet complementary, twentieth-century viola works.