Viola Students from the New Zealand School of Music with diverting sampler of well-played pieces

Viola pieces by Bach, Hoffmeister, Hindemith, Anthony Ritchie, Schumann and Rebecca Clarke

Violists: Debbie King, Georgia Steel, Grant Baker
Pianists: Catherine Norton, Matt Owen

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 18 October, 12:15 pm

Three violists and two pianists put this lunchtime programme together. Such student presentations always reveal music that one has never come across before, and the discoveries here – not the composers’ names, which one had a casual knowledge of – were of the pieces of music. A viola concerto by Anton Hoffmeister, a contemporary of Mozart, a character piece by Schumann, viola sonatas by Anthony Ritchie, Hindemith and Rebecca Clarke (all of which one should probably have known; none was played at the recent International Viola Congress in Wellington).

But it began with the Bach’s third cello suite, in C. Although one has become somewhat accustomed to other instruments purloining these great suites, the original version seems to become ever more deeply embedded in one’s consciousness, with the result that the cello’s nearest relative sounded – to me – just a little inauthentic. The intonation was good, but perhaps a certain lack of flexible articulation and bowing that was not quite as flawless as it might have been, detracted slightly. Debbie King chose the three fastest movements and managed pretty well, though the pair of Bourrées were more relaxed than the Gigue which might have been more engaging at a slower pace.

Georgia Steel, with Catherine Norton, chose to play the second and third movements from Franz Anton Hoffmeister viola concerto in D (another, in B flat also appears in the archive). A plaintive Adagio, with ornaments still in need of a bit more refinement, and the Rondo finale which was certainly of the Mozart generation without the beguiling charm and inspiration. However, the pair had absorbed the genuine idiom and made one conscious of a composer well worth watching out for.

Perhaps the most formidable of the pieces was Hindemith’s solo sonata, Op 25 No 1, of which Grant Baker played movements I, II and IV. The first, labelled Breit, ‘Broadly’, is unrelentingly severe, though it becomes more varied after a couple of minutes, evidently running without a pause into the second movement, ‘Very lively and strict’. It’s the fourth movement that is the show-piece, translated: ‘Furiously fast. Wild. Tonal beauty is secondary’; and Grant Baker did well.

Anthony Ritchie’s steadily growing corpus has become very imposing with music for a very wide range of instruments, genres and purposes. Here was Debbie King again, with pianist (I assume, Matt Oliver, though neither violist nor pianist was named). The piece was the Allegro tempestuoso (first movement) from the ‘Viola Concerto’, though the note explained that we were to hear Ritchie’s rewrite of the original concerto as a sonata for viola and piano. Ritchie’s music is always both interesting and approachable, as well as idiomatically composed to suit the intended performers. Debbie clearly found the music congenial as well as being in tune with the piano part; and the listener too found this a very engaging piece which strongly invited one to hear the other three movements.

Next came another first movement – ‘Nicht schnell’, from Schumann’s Märchenbilder (Op 113). Schumann didn’t invite the listener to try to conjure specific images to his fairytale pictures and nothing presented itself to my imagination. But Georgia Steel and Catherine Norton, again, fell easily into the spirit of these pieces written late in Schumann’s life when mental disabilities were starting to emerge. The brilliant inspiration of the pre-1840 piano works was gone gone.

Finally Grant Baker, with Catherine Norton played part of the viola sonata by British composer/violist Rebecca Clarke. I’d heard its first two movements at a St Andrew’s lunchtime concert back in 2010. Now we heard the third movement (Adagio – Allegro). It’s an attractive work, very much of its era, though not under the influence of atonality or undue abrasiveness. The piano part is as interesting as the viola’s, and Norton played with all her usual finesse and intuition. And the viola writing was far from routine; opening with a longish Adagio that subtly becomes more spirited and inventive.

As well as being an always rewarding impression of the nature of today’s student talent, this was a very interesting glimpse of the wide variety of diverting music for the viola.

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