Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Klezmer Hummel

What's this, I thought, as Ilan Schneider and Leonidas Dorfmanas launched into the Hummel Fantasia for viola and piano? Where are we, in a shtetl? This is now going to sound really bad, and it's not meant to be, seeing the two musicians, originally hailing from Vilnius, are Jewish, and now live in Germany and Luxembourg.

Schneider is a very, very fine viola player. He makes a beautiful sound, and like most of those raised in Vilnius musical education has perfect intonation. He trained as a violinist first, but now is the lead viola player in the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra. He's also a lovely guy, who still like Lithuanian food, or so he told me a year or two ago. No really, if you need a really sound, really in control violist, get him in. (I would not dare to comment on the pianist, but they played very well together and were well-balanced).

For those of us who go to viola congresses, the programme was a bit too predictable, and that's why I left before the second half - it contained a Brahms sonata, and when you hear x versions of them in congress master classes you get a bit sick of them. (Last time he played here I had to leave to go to another concert...not much luck!).

I know the Hummel Fantasia, in fact, I might have the notes. It's an odd piece. You'd think that a fantasy would have a slow part (which it did), and a virtuosic part (which it sort of did), but there were long gaps of piano solo - maybe it's for viola and orchestra, in which case it would sound better? The solo parts did not seem to connect so well; at the beginning there was a hint of theme and variations, but later the theme seemed to be lost. Strange.

This was followed by Schumann's Maerchenstuecke, written for cello and piano but transcribed for viola by Mikhail Kugel. Kugel himself is into the virtuoso end of viola playing. The transcription had one or two odd corners, where clearly the viola had run out of string length, and something had to give (like an octave or two).

Finally in the first half there was the Arpeggione, very standard viola repertoire.

In all three pieces a beautiful sound was produced - where the bow hit the string. And that was the problem in the whole first half of the concert - he was too light on the bow. You missed the beginnings and ends of phrases, all the time. Clearly he is very good at pianissimos, but it was as if the phrases briefly dipped onto the strings - they did not connect. The Schumann is a cello piece originally, and cellos don't really do lightness. In the Schubert and the beginning of the Hummel it was as if he was a wandering fiddler in an Eastern European cafe, wandering from table to table, lingering a little, rubatoed a little to get everyone's attention, and after a little while wandering off to another table. It just was not focused and continuous enough. Yes, it was very interesting, and when bow connected well to string, it was wonderful - but was it Schubert, or Schumann? It might have been them with lashings and lashings and lashings of cream....