When I went: 11 March 2017
Location: Holywell Music Room, Oxford
Performers: Peter Mallinson and Matthias Wiesner (violas), Evgenia Startseva (piano)
Creative team: J.S. Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat major); Edmund Rubbra (Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn); Franz Schubert (Allegretto); Gordon Jacob (Sonatina); Frantisek Benda (Sonata in D major); Fyodor Druzhinin (Sinfonia a Due), Aram Khatchaturian (Waltz)
Approximate price: £10
Special points: Focus on little-known music
Best bit: Benda – Sonata in D major
If I could change one thing: Cooler venue (temperature-wise)
To be blunt, viola music does not have a strong reputation even within the die-hard classical music world. Other instruments, like violins and pianos, get all the ‘glamour’ (such as it is) and pretty much all the repertoire. Therefore, it was refreshing to be able to go to a concert that celebrated music for violas, although this made for a tricky selling point to other guests. There’s no good reason why viola music shouldn’t be enjoyed more – its slightly warmer and lower tone and timbre makes it palatable to those who don’t like ‘screechy violins’.
The programme for this concert began with J S Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6; the Brandenburgs are pretty well-known and liked and this particular one has plenty of energy and beauty. There was then a yank forward in time to the twentieth century to Edmund Rubbra’s Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn, perhaps the hardest sell of all of this concert’s pieces due to its lack of formal structure and lack of focus on melodies – the Meditations nevertheless form a really interesting piece of music if you are in the mood to sit back and let them wash over you.
The full and lively Schubert Allegretto (arranged for two violas by Lionel Tertis – it was originally written as part of a Schubert string quartet) brought the music back to a more traditional classical style before the first half concluded with Gordon Jacob’s Sonatina, another twentieth-century piece written specifically for the viola which had a lot of delicacy and felt more like a lively homage to older classical music than a departure as the Rubbra did.
The Frantisek Benda Sonata in D major is a really impressive and enjoyable piece of music and it is a shame that it is only currently in manuscript form – this arrangement is by Vadim Borisovsky and the viola performers had to embark upon a mission of emailing and phone calls and chasing (over a looooong period of time) to get hold of it. The Druzhinin Sinfonie a Due made for an intense finale, showcasing some of the special technical effects that the viola is capable of, and followed by the Khatchaturian Waltz (again arranged by Borisovsky) as a delightful encore.
When you’re putting together a classical music concert that includes several pieces from different eras, balancing the programme is key; the phrase ‘classical music’ encompasses so many centuries of creativity that you have several choices of how best to present contrasting pieces that can be from the sub-category of ‘modern’ (which can mean anything written after 1900(!) back to much older sub-categories like ‘baroque’ (c.1600-1750). This particular programme was balanced really well as the more ‘challenging’ pieces were separated and the addition of the Khatchaturian encore at the end left the audience on a more upbeat note after the intense ending of the Druzhinin.
Both viola performers played with plenty of passion and finesse and talked to the audience about the pieces with confidence and enjoyment, as well as swapping around first and second viola parts for different pieces. The speaking parts added some colour to the concert – traditionally classical music concerts have not always involved interaction between performers and audiences and can feel super-formal, so chatting to your audience and giving them personal and amusing anecdotes is a good way to heighten their enjoyment.
The programme notes were also really good which is not always the case – they provided enough information on each piece and performer to provide some useful background but weren’t too long.