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S & H Recital Review

Bach and Shostakovich at the Wigmore Hall, 20th February, 2002 (MA)

Annette Bartoldy (viola)
Julius Drake (piano)
Bach Sonata in G, BWV 1027
Shostakovich Cello Sonata, Op 40 (ed. Kobatsky for viola and piano)
Bach Sonata in D, BWV 1028
Shostakovich Viola Sonata, Op. 147

A recital of music by Bach and Shostakovich – performed on viola and piano, to boot – might appear to offer something of a hair-shirt experience, all meat and no vegetables, and certainly no sweeteners for the mob. In the event it pulled a large and enthusiastic crowd to the Wigmore Hall, and they were rewarded with music-making of rare intensity.

Bach’s sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord are regularly raided by violists underfed on Baroque repertoire. Yet they don’t serve the instrument particularly well when accompanied by piano: too much of the music material in the keyboard part lies in the register where the viola is trying to make itself heard and, even when the lid is at half-stick (as here), much of the detail in the viola part is drowned by the piano. Annette Bartholdy, a young Swiss violist who divides her time between Britain and Europe, nonetheless did the music proud, investing it with colour and contrast, without losing a sense of line. Julius Drake, every musician’s dream-accompanist, invested the piano part with a pert sense of rhythm, his tone as restrained as he could reasonably manage without impairing the music’s vivacity.

The same problems of balance emerged in Viktor Kubatzky’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s 1934 Cello Sonata for viola and piano. Kubatzky (1898–1970) was, as Robert Matthew-Walker’s programme note pointed out, the dedicatee and first performer of the original version of the work; his arrangement of the cello part for viola had Shostakovich’s approval and was published a year after Kubatzky’s death in an edition by Evgeny Strakhov. This performance was billed as its western-European premiere, but my violist pals assure me it has enjoyed wider currency than that. The viola brings an intriguing coyness, an unexpected intimacy, to the work, but, as with the Bach, the piano part was conceived with a different balance in mind, and in this live performance much of Bartholdy’s warmth and colour went for very little. Where she was allowed to speak, as in the exposed viola line at the beginning of the slow movement, the effect was magical, and instantaneous: a rapt silence descended on the hall – the sound of people listening intensely.

Bartholdy came into her own in Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata, Op. 147, his last work – he was correcting the proofs in his hospital bed only days before he died, and the music often sounds like a dialogue with death, as Shostakovich contemplates his end. The musical gestures in Shostakovich’s last works are pared down to the bone, but Bartholdy and Drake found the understated passion that lurks somewhere behind the notes. And not all is resignation: the Allegretto central movement is a mad-cap Jewish dance where Shostakovich thumbs his nose at the grim reaper, and Bartholdy and Drake caught its desperate energy precisely. The final Adagio treads a fine path between consolation and despair, and Bartholdy brought it a painful beauty, investing the ensuing silence with an eloquence that was deeply moving.

Their forthcoming EMI disc, of Op. 147 and the Shostakovich/Kubatzky Cello Sonata will be worth looking out for. Studio recording, of course, will have allowed them to eliminate the problems of balance that affect Op. 40 in the hall; even with them this intelligently planned, uncompromising programme produced one of the most satisfying evening’s listening I have had in a long time. One leaves such a concert with a deep sense of gratitude – something words can’t capture.

Martin Anderson

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