On Record – Basil Vendryes & William David: Three Centuries of Russian Viola Sonatas (Toccata Next)

Basil Vendryes (viola) & William David (piano)

Bunin Viola Sonata in D minor Op.26 (1955)
Glinka (ed. Borisovsky) Viola Sonata in D minor (1825-8)
Shebalin Viola Sonata in F minor Op.51/2 (1954)
Sokolov Viola Sonata (2006)

Toccata Next TOCN0014 [69’31”]

Producers Basil Vendryes, William David
Engineers Bras Smalling, Athena Wilkinson

Recorded 28 September – 1 October 2020 at Mathie Music Salon, Glendale, Colorado

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics’s Next imprint comes up with an enterprising concept in four viola sonatas extending across 178 years of Russian music, all sympathetically played and recorded while revealing numerous similarities, as well as contrasts, in approach between these composers.

What’s the music like?

Chamber music occupied Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) for barely a decade until the early 1830s, but there are substantial pieces – among them a Viola Sonata whose finale was never written, and slow movement finished in 1932 by Vadim Borisovsky (founder violist of the Beethoven Quartet). The resulting torso is still impressive in its formal ambition and expressive sweep – whether the Allegro moderato with its decidedly serious and often combative tone, then the Larghetto whose halting lyricism yields appealing if restrained eloquence towards the close.

Despite building a sizable catalogue, including 10 symphonies (the second being premiered by Yevgeny Mravinsky), Revol Bunin (1924-76) died without having attained real success at home or abroad. Written for Rudolf Barshai, his Viola Sonata is deceptively understated as to its technical demands and musical substance – a weighty opening Allegro setting up decisive contrast with a central Andantino of greater pathos than its ‘semplice’ marking suggests, then a sombre introduction into another Allegro that maintains unflagging purpose until its ending.

Currently residing in Germany and best known as a pianist of wide-ranging sympathies, Ivan Sokolov (b1960) contributes a Viola Sonata whose relative brevity (barely 12 minutes) feels matched by its circumspection – the pensive opening Allegro leading, via an unaccompanied passage, into an Andante akin to an ‘album-leaf’ in its unaffected poise then an even shorter Allegro which functions as the improvisatory scherzo into a finale revisiting both mood and material of the first movement, now imbued with a fatalism that persists through to the close.

The music of Vissarion Shabalin (1902-63) is showing tentative signs of a return to favour – understandable in the case of his Viola Sonata, central part in a triptych of such pieces also for violin and cello. Written just before that by Bunin, the opening Allegro is less forceful in its rhythmic profile if more accommodating in melodic content, with the central Andante all but permeated by folksong inflections across its reticent course – an aspect shared by the final Allegro with its respectively animated and amiable themes, rounded off by a trenchant close.

Does it all work?

Yes. Not all these works are of equal quality, but the Bunin and Shebalin sonatas should be in the still too limited repertoire for this instrument while also representing these underestimated composers at something near their best. Both works, incidentally, are otherwise unavailable in modern recordings so that Basil Vendryes and William David place listeners in their debt with their perceptive if sometimes overly dogged readings. The sound is a little dry but never to the detriment of this music-making, with Derek Katz’s detailed notes an undoubted enhancement.

Is it recommended?

It is. Those who acquire it will hopefully be encouraged to seek out further music by the latter three composers – Shebalin being adequately represented (though his symphonies and string quartets need to be reissued), Bunin hardly at all and Sokolov with a further Toccata release.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Toccata Classics website. Click on the composer’s name for more on Ivan Sokolov, and here for more information on a disc of chamber and instrumental music, also on the Toccata label. Click on the artist names for more on Basil Vendryes and William David.

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