Live at LICA
Thursday, 31 October 2013
in the Great Hall, Lancaster University,
Reviewed by Henry Prince
Everyone was expecting a viola fest. The so-called ‘Cinderella’ of the orchestra rarely gets an outing alone with the Prince without her sisters taking the centre of the dance floor, but this time it would be different. The Prince would escort Cinderella to the admiration of all us lords and ladies.
But what was that in his hands? Those in the audience who find sizes challenging and cannot discern from any distance which size lid, for example, fits which kitchen pan were unable to say with certainty that Lawrence Power was holding not a viola but a violin. The sound though was unmistakeable. Definitely not rich enough for a viola. It must be a violin.
And so it was. Indeed, the whole of the first half of the programme was given over to the violin, despite the prominent billing of ‘viola and piano’. Confusion did not, however, end there. The so-called “programme” booklet for sale at the door turned out to be just a couple of sheets of paper and two expensive staples. To its dubious credit, it did contain a statement to the effect that it contained no notes about some of the pieces being played. On the other hand, its note on the final movement of the Prokofiev sonata was less than helpful. The movement was “triumphant in character. It initially leaps about, but then it proceeds more step-wise.”
Moans to the side, let’s talk about the music - which was wonderful! An hour of Beethoven and Prokofiev violin sonatas followed by Shostakovich’s sonata for viola and piano.
Lawrence Power introduced the Beethoven sonata, reminding us that its dedicatee Salieri, with whom Beethoven was studying at the time, was the same person so maligned in Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ and noting that its key of E-flat major was one to which Beethoven often turned whenever he was in good spirits.
The Prokofiev violin sonata was for me an example of the Russian at his best: exciting rhythms and harmonies. Particularly the harmonies. Prokofiev takes the listener on a safari into a musical land where only the composer has ever before been. It is as though he holds the listener’s hand and leads him or her along tracks that go to remote harmonic places from which the listener could never find the way back.
It was not until after the interval that a viola appeared. A single work would form the remainder of the concert: Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, op. 147 - the last work that the composer ever wrote and finished only one month before his death in August 1975. We were informed that the work was full of musical quotes both from Shostakovich’s own works and from the works of other composers (including Berg, Mahler and Beethoven).
Arguably the most significant musical quotation was that which dominates the final movement. Here the revered first movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata Op. 27 No. 2 - the ‘Moonlight’ - appears repeatedly. It was therefore fitting that a viola and piano arrangement (a fragment by York Bowen, finished by Lawrence Power himself) of the famous melody (with viola obbligato) be played immediately before the Shostakovich work. It was also appropriate that the first viola sound that we heard was produced by the instrument’s delicious C string: a sort of statement that the violin had finally been put away in its case.
It was during the performance of the Prokofiev that it became apparent how remarkable the evening’s audience was. It was as though there had been a sign at the door of the Great Hall commanding those who could not remain silent throughout the performance to turn round and go home. As though those who took their seats in the hall had conspired to create the most complete silences ever. Even between movements when a little relaxation is allowed, the silence was so intense that one could hear the performers thumbing the corners of their sheet music in preparation for the next page turn.
The audience was also amazingly sophisticated. (It may be a characteristic of practising and aspiring viola players who are drawn out on rainy nights to specialist concerts like this one!) Not everyone will have read in advance that the Prokofiev sonata had four movements, nor that the second was a lively scherzo. So when the performers completed the scherzo with the kind of flourish, both musical and visual, that normally signals the end of a piece, what did the audience do? Without so much as a single mistaken clap, they calmly re-established their collective composure in preparation for the commencement of the third movement!
For this reviewer, the most viscerally thrilling experience of the entire concert occurred at the very end of the Shostakovich sonata. Here, we heard the mother of all morendos, the muted final sound of the viola slowly, slowly dying away to nothingness, nothingness, nothingness... followed by the mother of all concert hall silences... lasting 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-maybe even more- seconds...
The most unexpected event? That was surely when Power pulled out a viola mute from his right trouser pocket. Store a mute in a trouser pocket? I had never seen that before!
Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano No.3 in E flat, Op.12 no.3
Prokofiev Violin Sonata No.2 in D
Beethoven (arr.Bowen): Adagio from “Moonlight” Sonata in C-sharp min, op.27, no.2
Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op.147
Tickets were priced (web advance): Adults £17.50, Concessions £14.50, Young person/student £7.00
Future musical events at Live at LICA: https://www.liveatlica.org/whats-on