Violist Veit Hertenstein has a career in front of him. At 25, he has already won numerous prizes and competitions, and he plays with beauty and maturity, technique and thoughtful musicianship. With these ingredients, he can only continue to improve with age. His viola sound is very reminiscent of the late master, William Primrose, a tone of dark honey, more tenor than alto, very clean, and sweet. He was joined on Sunday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by Pei-Yao Wang, a pianist of considerable accomplishment herself.
The program opened with Robert Schumann’s Sonata in a minor, op. 105. This work, originally for violin, featured fevered romanticism, rowdy 16th note passages, and in the first movement, Mit leienschaftlichem Ausdruck, some brutal octave passages in the coda, which Hertenstein played smoothly.
The next work was a set of movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. Russian violist Vadim Boriskovsky arranged 13 of the movements from the orchestral suites for viola & piano, and from these, Hertenstein chose 5 for a mini-suite, Introduction, Juliet as a young girl, Montauges and Capulets, Mercutio, and Death of Juliet. These movements featured sul ponticello (playing near the bridge), harmonics, and lots of upbow spiccato, as well as allowing Hertenstein to demonstrate his considerable ability to convey narrative. Indeed, all the works on this program seemed chosen with an eye to showcase his ability to portray meaning beyond just the notes on the page. These movements were mini-film scores, with Juliet’s fleet feet dancing across a stage, the argumentative families, Mercutio’s whimsical clowning, and finally, in the last movement while the viola was playing muted, a brutal sfz stab in the piano, which was clearly the “happy dagger”.
Nino Rota best known as one of the great film composers of the 20th century, collaborated with Federico Fellini, Franco Zeffirelli, and Francis Ford Coppola among others. But he was also a prolific composer of concert music, with 10 operas, 5 ballets, and orchestral, choral, and chamber works to his credit. His brief Intermezzo for viola & piano was written in 1945, and demonstrates his gifts for both melody and drama. It carries a lovely hint of renaissance tonality. Hertenstein played it to perfection.
Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes op. 34 were written in 1933 for solo piano. Hertenstein demonstrated serious talent as an arranger, transforming four of these pieces, Nos. 10, 15, 16, and 24 for viola and piano duet completely idiomatic style. All the pieces have the sickly, fiendish humor that Shostakovich can portray so well. Bravo on both the performance and the arrangements.
The concert concluded with a spirited rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango for cello and piano. This was the only time the viola was almost overpowered by the piano. Throughout the concert, Wang’s sensitive, expansive playing forged an equal partnership, at times managing to allow the duo to sound more like a vocal duet than two very disparate instruments, but the rambunctious opening of the Piazzolla was a touch overwhelming.
A standing ovation led to one final outing, Maria Theresia von Paradis’s Sicilienne, a thoughtful little transition back to the real world from the realm in which we’d been.