Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998) Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1985) [33:42]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1976) Sonata for Viola and Piano (1975) [31:39]
Antoine Tamestit (viola); Markus Hadulla (piano)
Warsaw Philharmonic/Dmitrij Kitajenko
rec. October 2007, Warsaw and January 2008, Sion, Switzerland. DDD
AMBROISIE AM168 [65:26]

The opening Largo of Schnittke’s Viola Concerto is dark and harrowing, with an ominous atmosphere beautifully conveyed by these performers. This first movement sets the scene for what is to come: a serious, thought-provoking work which seems almost to predict the composer’s impending ill-health.

The second movement opens with an explosive repeated pattern on the viola, to the accompaniment of strong, pounding beats in the orchestra. The momentum seems to increase almost uncontrollably, building the tensions to bursting point. A wonderful section of turgid, sour harmonies breaks in to the movement, before the opening material is transformed into a ghoulish waltz. A baroque-style ornament, first heard in the opening movement, breaks the tension, and is characteristic of Schnittke’s music, often using elements from previous eras. This is built into a wonderfully eerie melody line, with the viola line rising higher and higher in pitch over an arpeggiated accompaniment, before the mood of the opening returns, this time with grotesque waltz elements occasionally appearing. Military aspects are undoubtedly present, and the cadenza at the end of the movement made me wonder if, despite happiness at the end of the regime, there might also have a been a hint of fear at the unknown which was to follow it.

The final movement is contemplative and has a sense of introspection. This is a stunning movement, with strong emotional impact and a well developed compositional style. The end is particularly equisite, and Tamestit’s performance captures the essence of the music extremely well.

There is a sense of freedom in Schnittke’s writing; composed in the year that Gorbachev came to power in the USSR, the regime was relaxing and Soviet citizens were able to travel for the first time. Presumably also, artists were allowed freer expression in their works. This is a stunning work, which is powerful and dramatic in equal measure.

Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata was composed ten years later, when the composer was already dying. He never heard the work performed but worked closely with its dedicatee, violist Fyodor Druzhinin during the compositional process. In slow-fast-slow form, the opening movement uses long melodic lines which interweave between the instruments, creating a long arc structure and giving a sense of a long journey. The second movement is in the style of a Scherzo, brighter and lighter than the opening. The music develops into a folk-inspired dance, whirling and then fizzling out towards the end of the movement. This is an enjoyable movement, with technical challenges such as parallel fourths in the viola part, performed here with ease. The final movement is a tribute to Beethoven, and is reminiscent of the Moonlight Sonata in the pedaled accompaniment of the piano. This is immediately poignant, as though the central movement was a brief moment of respite in an otherwise sorrowful time. The viola’s dotted rhythm motif is heavy, interspersing a legato melody line. The viola’s sound is perfectly suited to this music; rich, sonorous and wonderfully expressive, without the brightness of the violin or the depth of the cello. It is testament to Shostakovich’s genius that he writes so successfully for this instrument, bringing out its idiosyncratic qualities to give a sense of raw emotion. The playing of Antoine Tamestit and pianist Markus Hadulla is breathtaking throughout. The performance seems effortless despite its intense musical impact.

This is a wonderful recording, capturing the essence of both works with understanding and communicating effectively to the listening audience. I am lucky enough to be able to listen to music in one form or another on a daily basis, including by a range of composers and by performers at various stages in their careers. They are mostly always technically perfect, especially in recorded form, and that is something that can be taken for granted most of the time. Very occasionally, however, I hear a recording which moves me to the extent that this one did; a rare exception where the performers transcend the technical to create something truly magical, extending a musical and emotional message to the listener. Exceptional.

Carla Rees