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The Daring Duo

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/28/2011 -  
Franz Schubert: Sonata in A Minor, D. 821, “Arpeggione”
Johannes Brahms: Sonata in E-flat Major for Viola and Piano, Opus 120, No. 2
Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Opus 147

Yuri Bashmet (Viola), Evgeny Kissin (Piano)

Was it the size of the auditorium? Was it the differences between both superstar players? Or that the first two works were transcriptions for viola, and the last piece a dying man’s wavering testament?

Whatever it was, last night’s sold-out concert by Yuri Bashmet and Evgeny Kissin was missing excitement and communication. Several musicians walked out in the intermission, and the audience itself seemed more puzzled than enthused by the recital The two soloists–either aware of this or afraid to defile Shostakovich’s memory–refrained from any encore.

Possibly cavernous Carnegie Hall was the wrong place for such a recital. Not that Mr. Bashmet’s tone did not project when necessary. In the final cadenza of the Shostakovich, his viola soared to the highest balconies. But that full-blooded sound was lacking in the rest of the concert. One was longing (hopelessly, since this duo has the reputation which could fill a stadium) for a small recital hall, a place to savor the music note by note.

Or perhaps it was a noncongruity of the two stars. Physically Bashmet, the aristocrat of the viola, a fine conductor and a brilliant transcriber of Shostakovich, resembled, with his ebony clothes, Gérard Depardieu at his most menacing. A striking contrast to the more romantic statuesque Kissin, in ordinary concert suit. Older by a third, Bashmet is one of the heroes of Russian music, who fought against the post-Stalin bureaucrats for his musical choices. Kissin, heir to this musical freedom, has had a charmed life since taking up the piano at the age of two.

Mr. Kissin rippled along, his piano a glistening fountain of notes, the mastery of a wunderkind who had matured to finesse and charm. Mr. Bashmet was more hesitant, a master technician who perhaps didn’t realize that his delicacy played a poor second at times to the undoubted brilliance of his pianist.

But does the viola really need a smaller space? Is a recording really necessary for maximum balance? Last week, Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young played Sofia Gubaidulina’s Concerto for two violas, and the sounds rang out clear even against an entire orchestra. Mr. Bashmet simply didn’t use that heaven-sent power given to him.

Then again, two of the three works weren’t meant for viola. Schubert’s Sonata was written for a now archaic instrument, and now usually played on the deeper cello. The “Arpeggione” is a lighthearted work, and the cello gives it warmth and gravity. Here, Mr. Kissin played as if it was a solo, and Mr. Bashmet’s work sounded like an obligato. Its loveliness was due to the Schubert music more than the duo of two inspired people.

The Brahms was also a “secondhand” work, transcribed for viola by the composer from the clarinet (which he loved) to something “clumsy and unsatisfying.” It was certainly not played clumsily, quite the opposite. Mr. Kissin was more solicitous of his violist, and Mr. Bashmet was ready to let himself go with some passion in the middle movement. Admittedly I am biased, as an ex-clarinetist, but the work seems phlegmatic for viola. Graceful enough, sometimes inspired, yet a bit tired.

The second half was devoted to the final work composed by Shostakovich, and here the challenge is cryptic as well as intense. Only musical cryptographers are able to pick out the allusions in the work. Of course Shostakovich quotes his own initials several times, he quotes from his 14th symphony and an early suite, and I detected some themes from a book of his Preludes, as well as Beethoven’s “Moonlight”, which dominates the final movement.

Shostakovich said the piece was “bright, bright and clear”, but for those not familiar with the quoted themes, the music seems wavering, not quite right. Two exceptions. The vigorous middle section, which needed no footnotes. The harmonics, the jumps, the wondrous sounds were played not only with great precision but was, probably rightly, a lot faster than the Allegretto called for.

The end, doleful as it was, had Mr. Bashmet play a cadenza which, though, short, was as melodious and brilliant. This was the Bashmet that we love, a man whose energy and color were so rarely present.

Harry Rolnick



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