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Concert Review/ Maxym Rysanov & Jakob Katznelson

img  Tobias

Violists still have to endure friendly 'viola jokes' (such as 'What's the definition of a minor second? Two violists playing in unison') from their orchestral colleagues, spreading the word of their poor musical qualities or dumbness. For centuries, violists hardly ever got melodies (and even less solos) to play in an ensemble or an orchestra. Times change, composers are writing interesting scores for viola, and although it is the least known instrument in the string family, nobody contests its unmistakable colour, its warm basses and spicy trebles: Today's concert, for example, taking place in the Berlin Philharmonie within the framework of the famous Spectrum Concerts series, features new musical talents and reveals some appealing works transcribed (Bach, Schumann) or written (Tabakova, Shostakovich) for viola and piano.

Maxim Rysanov (viola) and Jakob Katznelson (piano) open the program with a Bach sonata (G minor) originally written for viola da gamba and clavichord. From my seat, a bit far from the stage, the piece is lacking in clarity. Although the viola may be able to get closer than the cello to the sound of the ancient viola da gamba, the piano often overwhelms it and its resonance is making it difficult to follow the layered melodic lines in the faster parts. However, the musicians are able to create some powerful moods, especially in the slow movement where both interpreters delicately whisper some timeless music, like tiny water movements at a slack tide.

Schumann's four-part Fantasiestücke op.73, originally written for clarinet and piano, meanwhile, allows Rysanov to show his elegant playing. With Schumann, nothing is one-sided. Remember the twin characters he imagined as a music critic: the impetuous, passionate Florestan, and the calm, contemplative Eusebius, both depicting aspects of his personality. You can find both of them in these fast-composed Fantasiestücke, where everything flows, like some instantaneous rendition of a daydream. Delivering a secret melancholy around a two-notes motif in the first part, both interpreters seemed to tell us bad news and to reassure us at the same time. The tender and playful second part is a dialogue with clear phrases and snappy replies. Rysanov and Katznelson strangely never look at each other and although you may find their playing a bit detached, they technically achieve the 'discussion'. Listening to the energetic last part, you wonder which emotions are meant to be aroused: sorrow, enthusiasm? No way to tell but let's say Eusebius would have liked this controlled interpretation more than Florestan.

Now comes Dobrinka Tabakova's recently composed Suite in Jazz Style in which you surely can hear jazz, but not only. Digesting strong influences of other composers and music of the last century, the work immediately sounds like an instant classic. With a ground bass and broken chords, syncopations, viola pizz' and glissandi, the vivid first part ('Confident') is written in a jazz language, blending it with Central and Eastern Europe popular melodies. The second part ('Nocturnal') makes you think of Ravel's Blues (in his Sonata for Violin and Piano) with its witty gypsy tunes, but suddenly, quieter and darker worlds appear: Asian scales resonate along with piano bass chords like in some solemn Satie piece for organ. Soon Rysanov plays 'col legno' (with the stick of the bow) and drives us into mysteryland or, judging by the deep chords on the piano, to Debussy's sunken cathedral. The third part ('Rhythmic') begins with some tapping on the piano and ends in a funny and flippant fashion; in between, you have this bartokian lyrical element on the viola used alongside impulsive motoric rhythms (like in Ligeti's Musica Ricercata, piece n.8).

Despite the numerous influences, the whole work does not sound like some other postmodern deconstructed piece. Everything is fresh, vibrant and makes sense. The music is rarely atonal and speaks a rich language. The interesting thing is, nothing seems to be scored following some kind of predetermined conception of how written music should sound today. As an agreable consequence, the result is therefore very personal. Rysanov, to whom the work has been dedicated, and Katznelson, make an exceptional job and served the score with true style and spirit. After the performance is over, the 29 year-old London-based composer quickly runs to the stage to give a thankful hug to the artistic duo.

After a short intermission, here you are, waiting for a dusky epilogue with Shostakovich's Sonata for viola and piano. Composed in 1975, one month before he died, this is his last work. Yet the Russian composer is up to his usual business, made of desperate tragedy and caustic comedy. Alternating moments of minimal and maximal drama, passive anxiety and panic rushes, Rysanov and Katznelson seem to depict somebody standing over an abyss. By the time the second movement arrives, he is not standing anymore, he is dancing. You hear popular tunes which turn grotesque and creepy soon enough, before everything calms down. Don't expect Shostakovich to cheer you up in the third part. Instead, he brings dim reminiscences from Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Berg and... himself. The work shares a taste for memories with Tobakova's Suite. But here, at the end of a breathtaking interpretation, everything is drowned in silence. During the days of the composition, Shostakovich wrote an open letter to the musicians of the world: 'By building bridges into the future, we must take care not to burn the bridges connecting today’s culture to its immortal past.' It seems like Dobrinka Tobakova does more than merely fulfilling this mission: whereas Shostakovich showed conflict between the old and the new by putting literal quotations in the middle of a work, she simply merges both worlds.

By Antoine Richard

Antoine Richard is founder of „The V Sessions“, an online portal offering streaming video sessions by artists from the world of classical and contemporary composition as well as sound art.

Homepage: Spectrum Concerts Berlin
Homepage: Dobrinka Tabakova
Homepage: Maxim Rysanov

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