Wigmore Mondays – Lise Berthaud & David Saudubray: Schubert & Brahms sonatas

Lise Berthaud (viola), David Saudubray (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 2 March 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Neither of the two principal works in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime concert originated as viola pieces, but both have become repertoire staples for the instrument, the warmth of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata and the sage experience of Brahms’s First Clarinet Sonata being ideal vehicles for its silvery tone.

The Schubert is an especially unusual case, being the only prominent piece written for the arpeggione. This was an instrument with six strings and frets like a guitar, which was bowed and held between the knees.

Though it did not catch on as an alternative to the cello or the viola, Schubert wrote a substantial piece for a friend of his who played it. Because of the practicality of performing the work it was not until 1867 that it was finally published, with the realisation that it transcribes ideally for either cello or viola with piano accompaniment, the melodies lying under the fingers with deceptive ease.

The Arpeggione Sonata is a largely happy work, though it begins lost in thought (from 2:42 on the broadcast link). This was a measured intro from David Saudubray but as the first movement progressed the songful tone of Lise Berthaud’s viola took over, the pair enjoying the spring in the step of the faster music as though they were venturing out to dance. There was a really nice passage around the 8:38 mark, the viola using pizzicato to accompany the piano.

The second movement Adagio (14:28) explored more tender thoughts, the piano’s rocking motion suggesting the profile of a lullaby, especially with Berthaud’s soft musings above. However it was not long before we were straight into the Allegretto finale (18:13), the players investing more urgency until we arrived back at the dance (19:31), Schubert unable to resist setting the players on the floor once again. This good humour continued until the bright ending.

Brahms’s first contribution to the viola and piano repertoire is a very different animal, being from late in his career. Having decided to finish as a composer in 1890 it was something of a surprise when Brahms, having rid himself of the pressure of a Fifth Symphony, found inspiration in the clarinet. He wrote a Trio, Quintet and two Sonatas for the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, but it was soon brought to his attention that the Trio and both Sonatas transcribed very easily for viola – and those arrangements were made with his blessing.

As Lise Berthaud showed, the profile of Brahms’ melodies in the Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 are ideal for the instrument, the wide range of the first movement (29:07) easily under her fingers. The sweep of this melody and its subsequent development was impressive, as was the graceful second theme, with just the occasional slip from Saudubray in Brahms’s more congested piano writing. The controlled but expressive Andante was delightfully played (37:14), its roots clearly in song. A lilting Intermezzo was third (42:10), both players finishing each other’s musical sentences as equals, the music itself like a breeze in the branches of an old tree. The fourth movement (46:07), marked Vivace, threw caution away, with a peal of bells from the piano leading to a flowing and good spirited exchange, prone to the odd outspoken burst from the piano. Here was proof that the older Brahms still had the enthusiasm and musical vitality of his youth.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Schubert Arpeggione Sonata in A minor D821 (1824) (2:42)

Brahms Viola Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 (1894) (29:07)

As an encore we had a lovely piece from Frank Bridge, the Berceuse (52:40), whose rocking motion was evident in Saudubray’s sensitive piano playing, the ideal foil to Berthaud’s velvety tone.

Further listening & viewing

The music from this concert can be heard in the playlist below, with versions of the Schubert and Brahms recorded by Berthaud herself:

As alluded to in the review, late Brahms works particularly well for the viola, as this collection shows – with both sonatas and the trio for viola, cello and piano coupled together:

Frank Bridge wrote some winsome music for his first instrument, collected here by the viola player Louise Williams and pianist David Owen Norris, joined for three songs by mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby:

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