Michael Kugel, born in Kharkov in 1946, is best known as violist in the august Beethoven Quartet. Leaving Russia in the 1990s he taught and performed first in Jerusalem and since 1996, Belgium. A prolific transcriber and an author, he looks somewhat coolly on the age of narrow specialism. For him, musical and personal breadth of experience – he conducts and composes into the bargain – are markers of attainment.
It goes without saying that he has recorded widely, not least as a viola soloist. There are few clues as to the locations of these recordings, all of which – except the Ernst – date from 2012-13, without any further detail given. All the duo pieces feature the eminent collaboration of Boris Berezovsky. Some of the sound quality is better than others. It’s quite swimmy for the unfinished Glinka sonata, where the viola spectrum is more centred than the piano. Some of Kugel’s playing can be a touch rough here with the trills a little smeary, but he phrases affectionately in the second of the two surviving movements where Berezovsky’s limpid playing is a real help. In all, this is a useful performance, though neither as overtly expressive nor as tonally subtle as that of Yuri Bashmet.
There’s a charming extra work from Glinka, too – the Album piece - though Kugel’s vibrato sounds too intense for so slight a piece and his intonation is not impeccable. Anyone who grew up with Lubomír Malý and Libuše Křepelová’s 1977 Supraphon recording of Anton Rubinstein’s big-boned Viola Sonata will not recognise it from this latest performance. Largely the preserve of Russian and Czech violists, Kugel, fortunately as far as I’m concerned, takes a powerfully un-discursive approach, unlike the Czech duo. Whilst never taking a coach-and-horses line, he seldom lingers unnecessarily. The result is confident and breezy, with an urgent cantilena in the slow movement, incisive pizzicati in the scherzo, and an appropriate sense of grandeur throughout aided by Berezovsky’s virtuosic pianism in the allegro finale. Demerits, however, include endemic sniffs from the violist and a vast recorded echo. Don’t overlook the warm lyric grace of Glazunov’s Elégie
The booklet, as so many do, describes a series of ‘bonus’ items. To be fair to Melodiya, the programme runs 67 minutes and these last three items are all for solo viola. Stravinsky’s Elégie
balances Glazunov’s very different piece, and is played with sympathy and distinction. The last two pieces reveal Kugel as a transcriber of hyper-virtuosic nineteenth-century fare. The Schubert-Ernst Roi des Aulnes
caprice is a tribute to the transcriber’s self-confidence as it’s merciless enough in the violin version, let alone the slower-to-respond viola. In truth this is a messy performance, though tinged with heroic striving, and far too closely recorded for comfort. The Last Rose of Summer variations
, again by Ernst, is a notorious killer but Kugel negotiates it more effectively than the Schubert-Ernst, revealing commendable virtuosic qualities as he does so.
This is, therefore, something of a mixed disc, the good alongside the less good in variable recorded sound. I’d tread cautiously.