St Andrew’s captures fascinating sample from the 44th International Viola Congress in Wellington

Recital by leading Polish violist Marcin Murawski and pianist Gabriela Glapska

Music by Grażyna Bacewicz, Michael Kimber, Paweł Michałowski, Henryk Wieniawski, Władysław Żeleński, Fryderyk Chopin

St  Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 6 September, 12:15 pm

St Andrew’s managed to attract one of the visitors to the 44th International Viola Congress that was held in Wellington over the weekend. Polish violist Marcin Murawski together with pianist Gabriela Glapska (Polish doctoral student at Victoria University’s School of Music) played an interesting 45 minutes of Polish music. Apart from a couple of pieces by contemporary composers, most was by 19th century composers, and it was little surprise to find that two of Chopin’s Nocturnes ended the recital and that another was by one of the most brilliant composer/violinists of the 19th century, Henryk Wieniawski.

It was a programme that confirmed the impression that most would have, that the viola is an unostentatious instrument whose forte is meditative, calm, elegiac music, rather in line with at least some of the music that was played in the NZSO concert on Monday when three violists from the congress played evocative, pictorial, striking works written or arranged for the viola.

This concert consisted of pieces that were apparently composed for the viola, though the two Chopin Nocturnes were obviously and very successfully given a viola line.

The first piece, Polish Caprice, for solo viola, was written in 1949 by Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) who, the Internet tells me, Paderewski enabled to attend an academy in Paris where she studied with Nadia Boulanger. She is regarded as the most outstanding 20th century Polish female composer. It presented the viola in its quintessential character, thoughtful, very quiet and slow, hovering around the bottom, C string. But it soon evolved into a short, brisk dance-like phase, individual in character and somewhat angular. It ended all of a sudden.

United States composer and violist Michael Kimber wrote Murovisation. He is clearly a close friend and colleague of Murawski who has released six CDs of Kimber’s music played by Murawski’s viola quartet; Murovisation, again for viola alone, is on the first of those discs, its title clearly acknowledging the relationship between composer and violist. It is one of those pieces that opens so tentatively that I thought for a moment he was just tuning up. It became a series of slow, rising, widely spaced notes, a sort of arpeggio, endlessly, slowly, modifying as if exploring for the listener’s sake, the secrets of the viola’s beauty with a sense of mystery. It gradually accelerated, tumultuously and then returned, slowing to the sounds with which it started.

Paweł Michałowski was born in Wrocław in 1982 and appears to be primarily a bass guitar player, but with many other musical and scholarly sidelines, including a PhD that sought to reconstruct John Lock’s philosophy of language. I found a reference to his Lullaby Passacaglia (Passacaglia kołysanka, if you’d like the Polish) on a CD of passacaglias by several composers from Biber onward, played by a quartet of two violas, violin and piano, one of the violas being Murawski, though he played it here as a solo viola piece. It was a lullaby in the sense of being slowly rhythmic, quiet, such as to send a child to sleep; not the least dissonant, but subject to a slowly increasing intensity of expression. It demanded considerable technical feats that did not aim to be flamboyant or virtuosic.

Then came composer and great violinist Wieniawski and, for the first time, pianist Gabriela Glapski. Wieniawski’s Reverie offered alternating piano and viola solo passages at the beginning, so we become aware that Murawski had a highly talented partner. The music matched its title, creating a mood suggesting the two reminiscing, and when they came together the reflective mood remained though each became more distinct.

Throughout the concert, Murawski’s instrument and his playing captured what I have always felt to be the essence of the viola’s character. What Wieniawski we usually hear are the violin concertos – splendid pieces – and so it was interesting to hear something different that confirmed his place as a real composer rather than one confined to the player’s own instrument.

Władysław Żeleński was a contemporary of Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Grieg,… and his Lullaby (kołysanka again) sounded of that period. His melodies betrayed a distinct Romantic strain, which viola and piano captured in a subdued, rocking rhythm.

Two of Chopin’s Nocturnes (No 18 in E, Op 62/2 and No 13 in C minor, Op 48/1) were obvious candidates to continue the theme, with the addition of a viola line that seemed a perfectly integral part of the music and did not detract from the spirit of Chopin’s creations. Naturally, neither called for pyrotechnics, and the players’ approach was a combination of conviction and an unaffected aim to be faithful to the original; in fact Chopin’s long melodic lines almost suggested that it might have been Chopin who had reduced the score for viola and piano to piano alone.

So, though I was delighted to be at the Viola Congress’s concert with the NZSO on Monday, I rather regretted not getting to any of the events during the weekend (as I had at the 2001 congress that was similarly hosted by Donald Maurice and Massey University’s then Conservatorium of Music) and so I was very happy to hear this visitor’s playing, first of music of, for me, unknown Polish composers, and second, such quintessentially evocative and beautiful viola music.


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