Maxim Rysanov (viola), Ashley Wass (piano)
Wigmore Hall, London, 14 March 2016
written by Ben Hogwood
Audio (open in a new window)
Available until 13 April
What’s the music?
Schubert – Sonatina for violin and piano in G minor (arr. Rysanov) (1816) (20 minutes)
Leonid Desyatnikov Wie der Alte Leiermann (1997) (14 minutes)
Sergey Akhunov – Erlkönig (2015) (5 minutes)
Dobrinka Tabakova – Suite in Jazz Style (2008) (15 minutes)
Unfortunately most of the music in this concert is not available to stream…but there is a violin version of the Schubert that you can hear on the below playlist – which also contains some recommended listening and the originals of the Schubert songs inspiring the pieces by Desyatnikov and Akhunov:
About the music
This is a concert rather cleverly themed on the music of Schubert. Maxim Rysanov, though still a relatively new performer, has already contributed much to the available repertoire for the viola – and some of these contributions are in the forms of original compositions by Brahms and Schubert.
Schubert wrote three attractive Sonatinas for violin and piano, but their titles are misleading as they were applied posthumously. They are actually quite in depth pieces deserving of a bigger audience, and as Rysanov shows the G minor work transcribes nicely for viola and piano.
Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov works predominantly in film, but wrote Wie der Alte Leiermann, his take on a song from Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, for viola and piano. Likewise fellow Russian Sergey Akhunov expanded on Erlkönig, one of the composer’s darkest songs, to create a minimalist spectacular.
Finally Bulgarian composer Donbrinka Tabakova, with whom Rysanov has worked closely on an arrangement of a Schubert sonata for viola and orchestra, contributes a freely formed Suite in Jazz Style, where she looks to combine classical and jazz in a way successfully achieved by the likes of Stravinsky, Milhaud and Duke Ellington to name just a few.
Maxim Rysanov is without doubt one of the finest viola players around, and he cemented that reputation with a series of powerful and passionate performances at the Wigmore Hall.
He has also gained a reputation for imaginative programming, and that was also in evidence, taking the music of Schubert and projecting it into much newer music and influences. This was a more guarded success, for the piece by Desyatnikov felt too long, despite its dramatic profile, and was rather relentless in its cold and downbeat mood. This does imply it was a successful recasting of the Winterreise song, which is hardly sweetness and light itself, but a little more light amongst the shade would have been welcome.
Akhunov’s Erlkönig was more effective as it had more momentum and rhythmic interest, though this too was starting to test the ear and run thinner on inspiration by the time its five minutes came to a close.
Far more involving was Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova’s Jazz Suite, for it was more obviously fun, as well as being more immediately emotional. There were some clever syncopations and use of the viola to get some truly unusual sounds, and Rysanov clearly warmed to this, in the company of Ashley Wass’s clear but nicely swung rhythms.
The Schubert with which the two began was very well played and carried an urgent dialogue throughout, reminding us that the three pieces in this form are not trifles, as the Sonatina name implies they should be – they are actually really substantial and memorable works.
What should I listen out for?
1:28 – a call to arms to begin (marked Allegro giusto by the composer, which becomes a bit more furtive as the piano takes the lead. This is repeated (2:51) and then developed from 4:14 – before a reprise back in the ‘home’ key at 5:12. Mostly the two instruments are equal partners, though they both become obsessed with the three-note figure that dominates Schubert’s thinking. Rysanov’s arrangement for viola lies relatively comfortably under the fingers.
6:55 – a relaxed Andante forms the slow movement, with a nice and simple theme from the viola. Schubert gives it plenty of space, and the whole movement – though relatively short – has a nice airy profile.
12:57 – the influence of Mozart can be more clearly felt in this brisk Menuetto. You would have to look pretty lively if you were dancing three in a bar! The viola is effective when Rysanov drops down an octave to exploit the lower range (e.g.13:48). A trio section (from 13:59) is nicely poised, before the main theme comes back at 14:54.
15:42 – this sounds more like one of Schubert’s songs, with an offbeat piano accompaniment to the main viola tune. There is a lively secondary tune though, which comes through to dominate – especially when Schubert brings it back in the main key at 19:05, to close what had initially been an uncertain piece in emphatic fashion…or so we thought! He then swings back to the minor key, but ultimately this tune wins through.
The inspiration for Desyatnikov’s piece is Schubert’s Der Leiermann, which can be heard here:
23:02 – the harsh tones of the viola’s opening strings evoke the hurdy-gurdy in coarse style. In response the piano line feels very cold, and the two exchange their ideas. Then there is a slow statement from the viola using harmonics () before things get very fraught between the instruments. At 28:43 a new, faster section starts with urgent sounds and a swing to the melody that sounds almost American. In the long closing section, from 33:30, the music’s frosty tone becomes almost devoid of feeling, though some outbursts (34:08) draw vivid parallels with the music of Janáček.
Akhunov’s inspiration is Schubert’s Erlkönig, which can be heard here:
38:48 – a twisted introduction, with plenty of discords, gives way almost immediately to an intriguing development, a pulsating tonal base from the piano and a melodic cell that grows steadily from the viola.
45:35 – this first movement, marked ‘Confident’, starts out with a walking bass in the piano deliberately written to imitate the sound of a plucked bass instrument. Over the top is an airy, improvisatory piece of work from the piano. The pair spar playfully until the viola literally dies away.
49:54 – the second movement is marked ‘Nocturnal’, and treats the viola as though it were a solo jazz singer. After a sultry introduction from the piano the viola comes in with a bluesy tune, moving between the major and minor keys with ease. Tabakova uses some intriguing techniques to vary the sound of the instrument.
56:12 – the third movement has a simple marking – ‘Rhythmic’. It starts almost inaudibly, scratching on the viola, but then the two instruments start trading a syncopated figure. The music has a happy disposition, and both viola and piano dance around each other, the viola becoming ever more expansive in its language. The two are restless bodies right until the end.
There is plenty of good music for viola and piano if you look hard enough. Maxim Rysanov has recorded a fair bit of it already – and in a link with the music of this concert, here is an album begun by the Arpeggione Sonata arranged by Dobrinka Tabakova for viola and string orchestra:
Meanwhile you can watch her Suite in Old Style – again with Rysanov – below: