Thursday, 11 August 2022

Skill, love and understanding give the viola a chance to shine

ORGANISED by Concerts in Caversham this “voluptuous viola” recital was actually an equal partnership between the accomplished

ORGANISED by Concerts in Caversham this “voluptuous viola” recital was actually an equal partnership between the accomplished viola player Morgan Goff and his equally competent partner for the evening, the pianist Adrienne Black.

Their varied programme spanned more than 300 years of musical development, thus matching the age of Mr Goff’s viola. This stunning instrument was made by an English craftsman, Daniel Parker, and for a time was in the hands of Fritz Kreisler.

The programme began with a delightful collection of Five Old French Dances by Marin Marais that revealed the lighter side of musical life in the 17th century.

In particular, the imitation of a hurdy gurdy, sounding entirely convincing without vibrato, contrasted brilliantly with the cheerful sailor’s dance that followed it.

The next item in the programme, an arrangement of Chopin’s much loved Nocturne No20 in C sharp minor, was less successful. This adaptation lacked the dreamy fluidity that only flexible integration of the melodic line with its harmonies can achieve. It also revealed an unfortunate propensity of the church’s acoustics to favour the piano’s essential percussiveness over the warmer tones of the viola.

This problem was magnified later in the programme by the full-bloodied romantic works of Schumann ( Marchenbilder Op 113) and Brahms ( Scherzo from Sonnatenstatz in C minor) to the extent that the viola line was sometimes completely overwhelmed.

But there was much in this programme to enjoy and commend. The intricacies and interplay between the instruments in JS Bach’s third Gamba Sonata were presented seamlessly and with meticulous attention to Baroque conventions. The playing was flawless and totally absorbing throughout.

The Tango from Sarasateana by Efrem Zimbalist is an inconsequential work in which the essence of the tango, its rhythm, becomes lost in the complicated pyrotechnics demanded of the performers. Realistically, the piece serves only to demonstrate the virtuosic possibilities of the viola. To this end it succeeded and we were left in no doubt about Mr Goff’s own impressive technical mastery of his instrument.

Two pieces, Pensiero and Allegro Appassionata, by the much underrated composer Frank Bridge were real gems from the viola’s own repertoire. They were played movingly with great passion and sensitivity, exploiting the delicacy, range and sonority of the viola at its most expressive.

Much the same could be said about Ernest Bloch’s Rhapsodie from Suite H&eacutebraïque, with the added commendation that the viola’s warm and sometimes plaintive sound is well suited to the Jewish idiom — arguably more so than any other instrument. The large audience fully appreciated the depth and sincerity of this performance and greeted it rapturously.

The “voluptuous” viola is too often lost in the depths of the symphony orchestra. We should hear it more often, particularly when it is played in concert with the skill, love and understanding demonstrated by this evening’s artists.

John Burleigh

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