in: Reviews

April 12, 2016

Violist’s Bravery Rewarded

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Vincent Planès (file photo)

Vincent Planès (file photo)

Having lamented how rarely many of the international superstar musicians who reside in and around Boston concertize here, it is now time to celebrate the established and rising stars who do. Chiefly, these are the ones who teach at local institutions and therefore have the facilities at their disposal to do so (and the expectation by the institution that they will). Moreover, such invite peripatetic performers to explore repertory that might not play all that well on the usual circuit.

For these reasons Monday night’s faculty recital at Jordan Hall by NEC faculty member Dimitri Murrath, viola, with his frequent collaborating pianist Vincent Planès, was especially welcome. Murrath, as a core member of the Boston Chamber Music Society, is familiar within larger chamber ensembles, but he used his solo recital to delve into repertoire that the general concert-goer might not often hear. It’s too bad, though, that the format of these recitals doesn’t include detailed program notes, which would have been of benefit, considering the general unfamiliarity of the music on offer.

That said, the opener, Murrath’s transcription of Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 19 in E-flat, K. 302, dating from 1778, counts among Mozart’s first “mature” violin sonatas (a seasoned veteran aged 22 at the time). Written in Mannheim as part of a set of three sonatas for Maria Elisabeth, Electress of the Palatinate, it is a good choice for viola transcription, as it has a weightiness favorable to the viola sonority (if you listen to Anne Sophie Mutter here, you can see how it would appeal to a violist). Like almost all of Mozart’s early sonatas, this one is in two movements, a robust allegro and a moderately paced rondo. Murrath approached the first movement lightly, with tight vibrato and precise articulation of passagework and ornaments. His upper range, always a little dicey on the viola, was warm and unforced. Granted that earlier Mozart sonatas, along with early Beethoven and even early Schubert, referred to themselves as “for pianoforte and violin” rather than the other way around, we thought that Planès, whose playing was always crisp and elegant, boomed out rather too much; the piano could have done well at short stick for this. The rondo finale, a little on the fast side (not necessarily a bad thing), did not interfere with an increasing mellowness of tone and moments of great tender expressivity, notably in the second episode.

Michael Djupstrom’s is not a name we had heard before Monday. He is a Midwesterner by birth (now age 36), and teaches at Curtis, where he was a student of Jennifer Higdon and Richard Danielpour, having previously studied in Michigan with William Bolcom, among others. In 2005 he wrote Walimai, a tone poem (not calling it that, but an awful lot of contemporary music is based on literary sources and so falls under that rubric) for saxophone and piano, based on a story by Isabel Allende about a hunter who kills a woman and is then possessed by her spirit, coming to terms with it over time until they separate by means of a ritual fast. Djupstrom rescored it for viola and piano in 2011, and in that version it has garnered a number of awards (you can compare both versions on Djupstrom’s website here, under the “works” tab). The generally tonal music is suffused with jungle mists (hold that thought), and a gradual increase of intensity to the central tragedy, which intensity is then sustained through Walimai’s forced union with the woman’s spirit, until the final release. Murrath and Planès were excellent in their deliberate dynamic pacing, and Murrath was especially effective as the work concludes with a sustained senza vibrato passage.

The first half ended with George(s) Enescu’s 1906 Concert Piece—a felicitous use of translation to get around the bizarre factoid that although written and published in France, it was given the mixed-pickles title Concertstück, neither French (Pièce de concert) nor German (Konzertstück). Like Debussy’s Premiere rhapsodie for clarinet, this was written at Fauré’s request as a competition piece for students at the Paris Conservatory, and hung around as a general repertoire favorite. In a 2012 program note, Shiry Rashkovsky identified the three main challenges it presented: technical, musical (to bring out its expressive qualities over the technical requirements), and as stagecraft (“it remains for the deceptively similar [but always different] repetitions of earlier phrases to be committed to memory without error”). Despite the fact that Enescu was Romanian, and was firmly settled in Paris and at that time under French compositional influences, the sound of the opening section of this work strikes us as strangely English, possibly Delian or even James Friskin-ish. It is lush, reveling in fat viola sounds (interestingly, considering that Enescu was one of the great violinists of his age, the only available recording of him in this piece has him playing the piano, not the viola; we take it as a sign of great professional respect). As in the Mozart, and with even more opportunities, Murrath communicated those sonorities splendidly, and allowed the upper registers to ring out, and in both the lyrical opening section and the vigorous fast section that followed, obviously surmounted any technical difficulties with apparent ease (though he did have the score in front of him). The piano part was not at all trivial, and Planès was Murrath’s match in dexterity and expressivity.

The second half began with the premiere of Belgian composer Robert Groslot’s Évasion intérieure. Murrath’s countryman did not write this expressly for him, but sought him out to debut it (a computer realization of it is up on Groslot’s website here). The name translates as “Interior Escape” or “Escape Within,” but the absence of printed explanation frustrates any attempt to figure out what Groslot had in mind, other than as a kind of psychological landscape. It begins with deceptive tonal simplicity, announcing a rising motif of an octave in open fifths—not quite like Also Sprach Zarathustra—which is the source of just about all that follows in a continuous development (where several episodes naturally enough invert the trajectory of the music). It becomes gradually more agitated and disjoint, with occasional relapses into lyrical connectedness. Finally, there are scurrying figures in the piano against eerie harmonics, and then it ends. Murrath displayed superb dynamic control, sometimes down to the threshold of audibility, while Planès executed many delicate passages with utmost finesse.

The longest work came last, Ernest Bloch’s 1919 Suite for viola and piano, which famously won Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s competition that year by her casting the tie-breaking vote between it and Rebecca Clarke’s viola sonata. We’ve always thought the Clarke was better, but there were intrigues and whispers, and even a rumor that Bloch had written the Clarke himself. Still and all, the Suite is interesting, and presenting it under current circumstances took a little bit of bravery (read on).

Dmitri Murrath (file photo)

Dimitri Murrath (file photo)

Originally, Bloch published the Suite with descriptive titles to its four movements in addition to tempo markings. The idea was to present impressions of Asia, where Bloch had never been. Although he later became famous as a composer of Jewish “roots” music, this Suite is nothing like that, apart from the more general notion of treating cultures with sympathy rather than empathy (Bloch was Jewish, but from the Germanic culture rather than the Eastern European one he most often portrayed). As originally intended, the four movements depicted “the jungle,” “the animals of the jungle,” “Java” and “China.” The opening movement is by far the longest, and it throbs (note the similarity in spirit here to Djupstrom). Murrath brought vivid colors and languid portamento to his playing. Sadly, in this movement the music ends long before the performers stop playing. The scherzo-type invocation of jungle animals is peppy and evocative; the tempo marking allegro ironico (sarcastico might have been more accurate) gives a hint that Bloch’s agenda might have been rather close to Saint-Saëns’s in Carnival of the Animals. The performers were remarkably adept at infusing the various creatures with distinct personalities. The Lento that follows has the loveliest music in the piece, evoking heavily scented air and mysterious depths. The finale presents a conundrum. It is unabashed Chinoiserie full of pentatonics and parallel fifths, which despite a more passionate middle section offers to modern sensibilities a squirm-inducing image of bustling coolies pulling quaint rickshaws. One can appreciate this century-old intended homage in the spirit of Debussy’s Pagodas, but in an age in which even productions of The Mikado are beset by screechy protests, one feels a bit guilty doing so. Fortunately, professional musicians, classical music audiences, and conservatory students are a mature lot, and no placards or rotten tomatoes were in evidence.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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