Thursday, April 26, 2007

When I see 'French Duet' ...

...in a concert programme I immediately think 'Debussy' and 'ye gads'. So I might have seen an announcement of this concert before, but not recently and certainly not the day before outside the doors of the church where it took place. It took a bit of waiting time at the dentist's, and a read of the papers, to notice who exactly was playing there.

It was Michel Michalakakos, viola, and his wife Natalie (who has a different surname but it's not on the internet), violin, together with the best chamber orchestra in Lithuania, the St Christopher Chamber Orchestra under the delectable Donatas Katkus. Michalakakos often comes to Vilnius, but the last time I had seen him was in Montreal, Canada, at the International Viola Congress 2006, where he had been the proud flag carrier of the French representation, and they had put on a stunning, outstanding, day's events - one of the best ever! So obviously I had to be at this concert, especially since also it had been a long time since I had seen the St Christopher in action.

I suspected that the Mozart Sinfonia concertante might be on the programme, but I had not heard of the Pleyel Sinfonia Concertante which they also played. Violin and Viola must have been a bit popular at the time, because one of the many Stamitz had also written one. And of course Pleyel, of the Salle Pleyel incidentally, though he's Austrian, had also written some very pleasant violin/viola duets. This started off as an extremely delightful piece with a long first movement containing many lovely little classical music moments. The second movement, a rondo, though theme A seemed to appear only about three times, began with what sounded like a little classical minuet tune on the violin (though it was in 4/4 time) which was then responded to by the viola. But this movement also had some very dark, Don Giovanni-ish moments. The third movement - well, if it had been longer I might have found to say something about it; as it was it seemed to finish before it ever got started. I wonder if the soloists' parts were any longer than a page? Interestingly a (rather rough and tooth-achingly sharp-sounding) recording by the Concilium Musicum Wien suggests that there are only two movements, with the second one labelled as a 'rondo-moderato - Allegro'. That might explain this. The viola part of the whole piece seemed to have rather more accompanying scrubbing than the violin part, so it was not quite evenly balanced. The two soloists played this sounding much more in control than the recording, with a beautiful tone from both instruments (but especially the viola, of course!), and having fun, too! There was only one little moment where the violin, after some pyrotechnics, got into a tiny difficulty, and when the viola repeated the same section an octave or so lower, he came out in sympathy.

The Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, which we hear in Vilnius about once a year, was beautiful as always. I thought the violist was happier than the violinist, but perhaps the violist has played this 100 times more. The orchestra responded well, though there were moments in the introduction of the first movement when things could have been even crisper (you know when you expect a particularly thrilling, and much loved, moment [it's some pizz's in the first fiddle] and it does not quite happen). It's also possible that the first fiddles could not see the conductor well around the soloists; in any case he was very close indeed to the edge of the stage. In the introduction to the second movement the conductor kept surging like a jellyfish and pulling the orchestra along.

The concert finished in a chamber orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich's Quartet No 8, which my son played at the end of his school career. It's the one based on the notes D - eS - C - H, or to the English-speaking world, D - Eflat - C - B; Shosty's initials, so to speak, since a 'Sh' is one letter in Russian. This was wonderful; the orchestra was clean, crisp, full of energy, clearly picking up on the theme which went right through the piece. Fantastic stuff!