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A Little Respect

New York
Brooklyn Fulton Ferry Landing
01/19/2002 -  
Paul Hindemith: Duet for Viola and Cello
Robert Schumann: Fantasiestuecke
Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata # 4
Johannes Brahms: Trio for Viola, Cello and Piano

Anne-Marie McDermott (piano)
Paul Neubauer (viola)
Fred Sherry (cello)

The viola is the alto version of the violin and since the fingerboard of the instrument is longer, it is played entirely differently than its higher pitched cousin. Viola music is in the rare alto clef and so the notes appear on paper on different lines and spaces from that of the violin. Brahms, in particular, switches from alto to treble clef in his viola music without warning and so it is difficult to sight read as the performer must make instant adjustments to a different system of notation. The viola is tuned in fifths with its strings sounding C G D A while the violin’s open notes are G D A E (the opening of the Berg Violin Concerto). For some reason that has always eluded me, violists are the butt of endless jokes among musicians. Their best defense against this tomfoolery is the sensitive propagation of the rare masterpieces lovingly created for this uniquely rich tone. Such an occasion took place last evening aboard Olga Bloom’s chamber music barge on the East River as Paul Neubauer coordinated a program exhibiting both the variety of compositions written for his instrument and a good deal of his own virtuosity. Joined by accompanist extraordinaire Anne-Marie McDermott and cellist Fred Sherry (perhaps Mr. Neubauer’s evenings on the barge are a cut above the average fare simply because he has more talented friends than some of his fellow hosts), he impressed this listener with the beauty of his tone, especially in the Schumann. This is an artist of rare ability, his richly polished sound resonating so magnificently in the warm acoustics of Ms. Bloom’s former living space. Ms. McDermott is an exceptional pianist who puts much studied effort and loving musicianship into the pronouncements of every chord. She is one of those insightful pianists who has mastered the concept that the secret to playing a percussion instrument well lies not in the down strokes but rather the up, her eloquent fingers never lingering even a nanosecond too long on the keys. This combination of elegant interpreters made for the best performance of the evening; in fact, I’ll go out on a limb and state that this was the loveliest duo of viola and piano since the elderly Boris Kroyt and the teenaged Murray Perahia some years ago.

Max Bruch noticed the amazing similarity of sonority between the viola and the clarinet and capitalized on this phenomenon in two works: the Romance for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra and the Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, the penultimate of which is extremely haunting. But it fell to another amateur viola player at the end of the nineteenth century to compose the most expressive pieces for the instrument. Johannes Brahms first played with the alto register of the viola in his Two Songs, Op. 91 for Alto Voice and Viola, one of which is a very moving and grandmotherly cradle song reminiscent of his famous Wiegenlied. Except for the obvious aural differences in enunciation, the alto and the viola sounds are almost identical in these two lovely miniatures. At the very end of his career, Brahms, who had considered retiring from composition, met a musician whose great skill inspired him to create an entire valedictory body of work which looked back autumnally at a life well spent and well enjoyed. The musician was Richard Muehlfeld, a clarinetist, and Brahms composed for him four pieces of incomparable beauty. The two Sonatas for Clarinet (or Viola) and Piano, the Trio for Clarinet (later arranged for viola), Cello and Piano and the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet stand as a set unique in music (and possibly cultural) history, as they express no melancholy or regret, no religious questioning or longing, only appreciation and satisfaction for a brilliantly lived life. Although powerfully played, the Brahms was much less satisfying than the Schumann. Mr. Sherry, recovering from a hand injury, was off of his game and did not always lend the important bottom support to the structure. This arrangement is not one of the composer’s best efforts either, the timbral meshing of the two stringed instruments often forced and muddy, the articulation of the clarinet much more pleasingly contrasting with the cello even when their sonorities are in sync. McDermott kept the propulsion electric, however, and the overall effect was one of tight Sturm und Drang tension, a propos of a piece which, like Siegfried, begins in darkness but ends in glorious light.

Fortunately for violists one of the most significant composers of the twentieth century was a virtuoso performer on the instrument. Paul Hindemith wrote extensively for the viola and for many years lived off of his performances of these works. In the 1920’s there were still no major pieces for viola and orchestra, other than Harold in Italy (significantly written for a violinist, Niccolo Paganini, who had just purchased a Cremonese viola and wanted to take it for a spin), so Hindemith wrote four of them over a ten-year period. The Viola Concerto (1927) is also known as the Kammermusik #5. The Konzertmusik (1930) was scored for viola and large chamber orchestra. The concerto after old folk-songs (1935) is entitled Der Schwanendreher and features a Berliozian slow movement with a gorgeous interplay between solo viola and harp. The last of the pieces is the most moving. Hindemith was genuinely shaken by the death of King George V in 1936 (the composer was in the midst of the political battle of his life at the time, with the titanic figures of Wilhelm Furtwaengler and Joseph Goebbels debating his status almost daily in the press) and responded by writing the heartfelt Trauermusik (Funeral Music) for viola and string orchestra. Finally there existed a sensitive work that revealed the incredibly plangent quality of the dark timbre of the instrument. Hindemith also wrote much chamber music for his precious vehicle, including two sonatas for solo viola, two sonatas for viola and piano and a “little sonata” for viola d’amore and piano. He once created a Duet for Viola and Cello in three hours when he needed a short piece to fill out a recording that he and Emanuel Feuermann were making in London. The inclusion of this rarity of rarities was an interesting bonus in a concert that sent us all out into the snow on the riverbank feeling fortified, edified and warm.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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