October 29, 2013
The viola is a deadly instrument. Many notable composers – Bartok and Shostakovich – wrote viola pieces immediately before they died. Prokofiev was commissioned to write a viola piece and then passed away. Even those sceptical of a connection, will concede that the viola has long been overlooked, the butt of musicians’ jokes. Stuck in the middle between cellos and violins, the viola section too often serves a supporting role for the violin’s soaring melodies. But the viola’s fortunes seem to be turning thanks to a wave of new recordings and the performances of Maxim Rysanov.
The Ukranian-born Rysanov burst onto the scene in 2007 as winner of the BBC New Generation scheme and in 2008 scooped the prestigious Classic FM Young Gramophone artist of the year. A charismatic performance at Last Night of the Proms in 2010 brought Rysanov and his instrument huge acclaim. Since then, he has toured the world - and dared to compose.
At St John the Evangelist Church, Rysanov plays a varied programme, little of it written specifically for the viola. He begins unaccompanied with Bach’s Cello Suite in D Major. A prelude full of echo effects, phrases answering one another, is followed by five dance movements, graceful and majestic by turn. The second work in the recital, Mendelssohn’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, sees Rysanov accompanied by Fabio Bidini - and pick up the pace. The movement starts pensive but in the extended vigorous finale Rysanov breaks a bow. Mendelssohn’s is one of the very few viola sonatas produced during the Classical / early Romantic period and this shows: the range and tone fit the middle-voiced instrument well.
After an interval, Maxim returns with a Schubert (Sonata in A minor D821) and a Schumann (Sonata No.1 in A minor for violin and piano). The first of these was originally composed for the Arpeggione – a six-stringed bowed guitar that became popular in the 1820s. Schubert’s great gift is for melody – and this movement is mellifluous. Schuman’s sonata is passionate. Another bow string breaks and Rysanov breathes vigorously.
This was a well-attended concert in an ever-beautiful venue. Any event in the St John the Evangelist is worth attending for the surroundings alone. Rysnaov’s varied programme served as an ideal introduction to his instrument; enjoyable for experts, accessible for those with less knowledge. Rysanov is gifted and engaging. Let’s hope both he and the viola stay in the limelight.