Violist Maxim Rysanov and pianist Ashley Wass left an audience silent and awe-struck after their recital, The Romantic and Russian Viola, at the Melbourne Recital Centre last night. After a few long moments, enthusiastic applause broke out but there was no encore, a decision by the performers that many in the audience thought absolutely correct. How do you follow perfection?
The program was:
SCHUBERT Sonatina No.3 in G minor, D.408 (transcribed Rysanov)
SCHUMANN Sonata for viola and piano No.1 in A minor, Op.105 (transcribed Katims)
PROKOFIEV Three pieces from Romeo & Juliet (transcribed Borisovsky)
SHOSTAKOVICH Sonata for viola and piano, Op.147
Several things came to mind when first viewing this program. One was how few pieces seemed to be written specifically for the viola; the other (by contrast) was that the Shostakovich Sonata, in its original form for viola and piano, dominated the program. With its musical references to other works (particularly by Beethoven) it extended the scope of the concert even beyond its listed program, and was poignant in being Shostakovich’s last work.
First, however, was Maxim Rysanov’s own transcription of a Schubert work, Sonatina No.3 in G minor for violin and piano, D.408. Knowing the capabilities of his instrument well (and having a 1780 Guadagnini to play) Rysanov chose well for this transcription. From the strong opening through four contrasting movements the extra depth of the viola was heard to lend sweetness, while at times even sounding like a cello.
Unison passages were an early demonstration of the sync between viola and piano, while at other times Rysanov and Wass achieved an effortless empathy. The exemplary “finish” of their interaction was noteworthy, for example, in the Andante’s elegant phrasing that recalled Mozart and in the lyricism that was found throughout the Sonatina, even in declamatory passages.
A Menuetto (beginning with oddly “growly” notes) was a sunny dance that was more like a rondo, some skilful staccato interspersed with a smooth execution of the melody. The final Allegro moderato appeared light, but was a marriage of superior technique and playfulness. The sonata structure of the piece was evident in Schubert’s development of this movement, and in the composer’s characteristic introspection as first the viola, then the piano (with ever-stronger chords), explored its central theme.
For those who say they confuse Schubert with his near contemporary, Schumann, this concert should have served to illustrate the differences between the composers. Where Schubert always had an eye to form, Schumann’s muse was passion. The first part of his Sonata for viola and piano No.1 in A minor, Op.105 was to be played “with passionate expression”, and after an allegro, the final was to be “lebhaft” (lively). The result, in this sonata, with these performers, was an outpouring of glorious music that began with broken chords from the piano and the first of the viola’s soaring melodies. Ranging across the scale, the instrument matched the cello’s warmth and the violin’s sweetness – or simply demonstrated how this one instrument had capacities that are not often fully appreciated.
The work was transcribed by 20th century American violist Milton Katims, suggesting that, like Rysanov, only a violist can truly appreciate the capacities of his instrument. The Recital Centre audience was soon drawn into that understanding, however, as viola and piano conveyed the ecstasy of Schumann’s music, with some showy arpeggios for the viola at the end of the first movement. The Allegretto that followed appeared lighter, although its playfulness was tempered by the yearning that is never far from Schumann’s work. The sweet and reflective mood was well conveyed by Rysanov, with Wass giving an empathetic performance. Finally, the technical challenges of the final part were easily met, with some of the deeper passages so suited to the viola that it would be hard to imagine them played on a violin.
Caught up with my new-found interest in violists who transcribe material for their instrument I later researched the arranger of the next work on the program, music from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet – Suite, Op.64. This was Russian Vadim Vasilyevich Borisovsky, one of the founders of the Beethoven Quartet and their violist for 40 years. It must have taken great faith in his instrument for Borisovsky to reduce the massive orchestral score to music for just two instruments, viola and piano.
Three selections were played (although the third was different from the advertised Death of Juliet) but the overwhelming achievement was the performance of Dance of the Knights – an instantly recognisable and very popular piece. While the piano could hardly summon up the sound of a full orchestra (with percussion) Wass did a creditable job of accompanying Rysanov’s tour de force, the strongly accented, aggressive Knights theme, built around a single minor chord. Both performers stressed the dotted rhythms and syncopation that characterise the piece but also lent a new sweetness to the second subject. Its reflective change of mood lent itself well to viola and piano, played with such exact mastery of tone.
The final selection from Romeo and Juliet was played at a challenging tempo and including pizzicato, with the full range of both instruments explored. Virtuosic playing that left the audience gasping, yet grateful for an interval that would allow the performers some relief and themselves the chance to share their enthusiasm with others in the foyer.
Then it was time for the great Shostakovich Sonata for viola and piano, Op.147, and (as has been noted) the only work on the program originally written for viola and piano. The very spare beginning, with pizzicato viola and delicate piano gave little hint of the greatness to unfold, both in terms of the composition and the duo’s understanding of it.
As a reviewer, less familiar with the work, I feel unqualified to comment except to say that this was a performance of great maturity and superior competence. Yes, I head the references to other composers, particularly Beethoven (Fifth Symphony in the first movement, Moonlight Sonata in the last). The Allegretto was more recognisable in form, rhythm and possibly harmony, with the piano showing folk influences, yet the second part seemed disconnected from the first. And I can comment that the Adagio’s viola part (matched by the piano) was by turns questioning, sad, slow and beautiful, with an impassioned section like a cadenza.
But none of this conveys the experience of being so drawn into a beautiful performance of this extraordinary music that the ending, though gentle, came as a shock. To return to the opening words of this review: violist Maxim Rysanov and pianist Ashley Wass left an audience silent and awe-struck.
Suzanne Yanko reviewed this concert in the Great Performers Series at the Melbourne Recital Centre on June 17.
The image is of composer Dmitri Shostakovich.