Wigmore Mondays – Maxim Rysanov & Ashley Wass: Schubert plus


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.

Performance verdict

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.

Further listening

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:

Ilya Gringolts and Ashley Wass – Debussy and Korngold at the Wigmore Hall

A beginning and an end – Debussy and Korngold Violin Sonatas at the Wigmore Hall


Ilya Gringolts (violin), Ashley Wass (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 29 June 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):


on the iPlayer until 28 July


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert (which Gringolts and Wass have not yet recorded):

What’s the music?

Debussy: Violin Sonata (1917) (12 minutes)

Korngold: Violin Sonata (1912) (42 minutes)

What about the music?

Perhaps surprisingly, the violin sonata was one of the main forms in use for chamber music in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Perhaps aware that composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann had mastered the form impressively, others took up the challenge as the new century began its musical breakaway. Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Fauré and Walton – these and more were authors of one or more sonata for violin and piano. Meanwhile an elderly Debussy and child prodigy Korngold offered their own take on the form within four years of each other.

The composers could not have been more different in their circumstances or approach. Debussy was fading fast due to cancer, and the Violin Sonata – a compact yet concentrated piece – was his final published work, meaning we would not get to see the last three sonatas of his projected six-part series. Those that remained – the Sonata for flute, viola and harp, the Cello Sonata and the Violin Sonata – are rightly held in high regard.

Korngold, meanwhile, was just into his teens, somehow with an orchestral work under his belt at the outrageously young age of twelve. This sonata, only three years later, was written just after he had been learning with Zemlinsky, who taught Berg and Schoenberg. It was completed for no less a pair than violinist Carl Flesch and pianist Artur Schnabel. It is an imposing work, clocking in at over forty minutes, and is full of big, romantic gestures and rich, chromatic harmony. It also contains melodic pointers towards the much shorter Violin Concerto he was to complete in 1945.

Performance verdict

A fascinating double act, this – chalk and cheese, but the two works complementing each other perfectly as they represent two centres of musical development in Europe at the start of the century.

Debussy, representing Paris, is by far the more concentrated, and both performers are careful not to be too outrageous with the sudden loud bits, nor too restrained in the quiet moments. Technically very sound, Gringolts has a consistently appealing tone, and the shading from Ashley Wass’s colourful piano part brings out the detail.

The Korngold could not be more different – more than three times the length, and focussing in on Vienna with its rich musical language, its big gestures and its long, florid tunes. With this we hear something of what composers like Zemlinsky (his teacher) and Schoenberg (in his early works) were up to.

Both performers give this their all, and the balance between singing violin and quasi-orchestral piano is impeccably observed, particularly in the heavy set second movement. Gringolts really sings in the more lyrical passages – notably the trio of the second movement – and the whole performance stands as a most impressive achievement, with its most concentrated moment right at the end.

What should I listen out for?


1:42 – the first of three short movements in this sonata, notable for its brief but intense ideas, and a tendency to go from private thoughts to sudden outbursts. The use of chromatic harmony makes the music a bit wary at times, before it signs off quickly and emphatically.

6:01 – Gringolts and Wass waste no time in moving straight into the second movement, which is once again elusive. Several ideas sound instinctive, almost improvised, and perhaps indicate the composer’s restless move. Debussy makes a very distinctive sound when the two instruments play the same tune at 7:56. The performers lead straight into…

10:13 – the final movement, which moves swiftly into a memory of the main tune from the first. Again the violin and piano spar with each other, sometimes playfully, and sometimes with brief aggression that Debussy lets loose. The end, when it comes, is high-spirited.


16:02 – this massive work begins quite innocuously, with a movement marked ‘ben moderato, ma con passione’ (a moderate tempo, with passion). Then it really gets going, as though the young composer is straining at the leash. The piano part is expansive and wide ranging, as though Korngold has an orchestral sound in his head.

All the opening thoughts head for a massive climax point at 21:43, after which point the music subsides a bit, though the rich, lyrical melodies continue to pour from the violin.

26:39 – the second movement, a scherzo, reveals two very different musical strands. The first is jumpy, with an angular line, both players are performing gymnastics as they leap up high and crouch down low. Then at 27:12 there is a sly melody that slips down on the violin, with a languid piano line for company. This is at odds with most of the movement though, as the high voltage musical exchanges continue – with the sly melody now heard at full volume (around 29:10).

Then at 31:12 the contrasting ‘trio’ begins, with a beautiful and graceful melody from the violin and flowing piano. This reverie is broken at 33:56 by the return of the jumpy opening material, and around 35:30 we hear some pretty savage chords from the piano, leading to the end at 37:49

38:14 – the slow movement, and a time for a little respite. Korngold once again writes a tune with some unusual contours to it, but one that suits the singing tone of the violin. From 40:55 the violin uses a mute briefly, the sound constricted and quite ghostly, but by the time we reach 43:00 there are forceful and passionate thoughts once again – leading to the soaring violin of 45:58. After that it effectively collapses in a heap!

46:56 – quite an elusive tune from the violin to begin the finale, wandering amiably. Gradually the music picks up momentum and Korngold introduces more dialogue between the instruments, culminating at 51:09 when a fugue starts in the piano left hand, picked up by the violin at 51:14. Again the lines become more angular – but then at 52:20 calm prevails, and a beautiful coda begins. Both violin and piano are serene, the passion of the preceding forty minutes or so summed up in the soft but heartfelt closing pages, finishing at 55:06.

Further listening

If you want further music for violin and piano, a nice calling point from the Debussy is the Violin Sonata no.1 by fellow French composer Fauré:

If however it’s more Korngold that you want the album below offers you a way in to The Sea Hawk, one of his finest film scores – while the one below that will introduce you to the substantial Symphony in F sharp, an increasingly popular orchestral work.

For more concerts click here