Wednesday 2 May 2012

An unattainable ideal: the dilemma of romanticism

As part of their Music in Context series, the Aspect Foundation presented a combination of lecture and concert at Kings Place last night (1 May). Russian violist Iakov Zats, accompanied by Vsevolod Dvorkin, gave a recital consisting of Brahms's Sonata in F minor, Op 120, Schumann's Three Romances, Op 94 and Franck's Sonata in A major. And before you ask, no Franck didn't write a sonata for the viola, this was a transcription of the violin sonata, and the Schumann pieces were similar adaptations of the Romances for oboe.

Before each half of the concert, Ben Street delivered an illustrated lecture on the subject An unattainable ideal: the dilemma of romanticism. Though Street delivered the lecture the material was in fact by Dr Markus Ophälders, the Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Verona. It was a shame that Ophälders himself could not deliver the lecture as Street, though fluent, was a little too self-depreciating and perhaps a bit distant from the subject matter.

The illustrations were taken from Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and Turner, with illustrations of Schinkel's architecture to demonstrate the classicism against which Romantics were responding, and also Gaudi's architecture intended as the physical embodiment of a certain type of organic Romanticism.

In the first half, Street tried to define the essence of German Romanticism, with its elements of being solitary, living poetically and a yearning for something you don't quite yet understand. Going on the propose that Romantic music was the expression of something infinite in finite form. There is an essential sense of contradiction and struggle in the music and literature. Romanticism is a reaction against balance and harmony; but it is neither irrational nor spontaneous but contained with a structure. The basic dilemma is the tension between freedom and form, embodied in the motto frei aber einsam.

Brahms's F minor sonata was written for clarinet and piano but at the behest of his publishers Brahms cast it as a viola sonata as well; in doing so Brahms took advantage of the double stopping available on the instrument. Though not first choice, Brahms seems to have had a love of the viola and this version of the sonata suits the instruments dark melancholy tones.

That said, Iakov Zats plays on a relatively small instrument with a light, sweetly melancholy tone rather than something bigger and darker. His singing tone worked well in the sonatas opening movement, with its fragmented melodies but there were moments when I wanted something a little darker, less sweet; Zats' performance was a little to well balanced to be quite appasionato. Dvorkin provided good muscular piano support and the two made a balanced duo. Ironically, in the second movement I wanted the viola to sing out rather more as Zats played with a sweet veiled tone. The Intermezzo saw the two instruments tossing phrases between each other in a splendidly civilised way.  They brought out the rather neo-classical feel of the opening material in the final rondo.  The whole sonata was given a serious and thoughtful performance which brought out its aura of melancholy.

They followed this with Schumann's oboe Romances in Zats's own edition for viola; in fact Schumann's original oboe part includes a note too low for the oboe. The transcription was highly convincing and worked well as a viola piece, though it is a shame that Zats and Dvorkin didn't give us Schumann's genuine works for viola and piano. The three movements are all wispy evanescence, with Zats giving us some lovely veiled tones and hints of fragmentary melodies. There was almost a ghost story to the final movement.

The second half opened with the continuation of the lecture with the movement of Romanticism from Germany to France. Where the movement in Germany had been highly literary, in France it was less connected to literature or philosophy. Like German Romanticism, in France there was a move away from Classicism, giving form to something formless. How do you structure a mass of fragments, leading to the influence of Goethe's Metamorphosis of a Leaf - organic growth.

Violist Iakov Zats has been expanding the viola repertoire, in addition to the Schumann Romances he has adapted Ysaye's cello sonata. Though the programme did not say so, I presume that he played his own adaptation of the Franck Violin Sonata. It worked remarkably well. Being as Zats' viola was light toned, the sound quality did not disturb the ear with the change from violin to viola.

The opening movement gave us a lovely singing tone with a good flexibly line over a highly mobile piano. The second movement saw some bravura piano playing from Dvorkin, complimented by Zats' impassioned viola. The third movement gave us a nicely impassioned recitative with a quite lovely lyrical section. The final movement surprised me, I expected to miss the violin more but Zats and Dvorkin gave us a nicely balanced performance which was complete in itself, full of Franck's distinctive Romanticism.

The audience reaction was enthusiastic and we were given two encores, including Turina's Sevilla, an beautiful combination of mournful fragments of melody and atmospheric harmonics.

I am pleased to say the Aspect Foundation will be continuing their Music in Context series. This recital and lecture provided an absorbing combination of music and information, helped of course by some very fine performances indeed from Zats and Dvorkin. In some ways I would have welcomed slightly more lecture, but the combination certainly a very neat idea.

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