Church of St. John the Divine
December 8, 2010
According to the old canaille, the average string quartet consists of "a violinist, a bad violinist, a failed violinist and someone who hates violinists".
The notion that violists are "failed violinists" and that their instrument is somehow a lesser one (there are more jokes about the viola than any other orchestral instrument) dies hard.
In his recital on Wednesday evening, Pemi Paul triumphantly showed that the myth really should finally be laid to rest; it was unfortunate that a combination of factors (torrential rain and a mid-week concert) should have robbed him of the full house he so richly deserved.
The viola, like the guitar, that other cinderella instrument which emerged from the shadows in the early 1900s, suffers from a lack of pre-20th century repertoire; thus recitalists, unless they are prepared to take the even bigger risk of programming an entire evening of what many listeners still consider "modern" music, have to rely on transcriptions.
And when it comes to transcriptions, is any composer's music more suitable (or more frequently transcribed) that that of Bach?
Paul opened and closed his recital with major works by Bach: a cello suite and a violin partita.
For me - and, I am sure, for others in the audience - the Violin Partita No.2, BWV1004, with its astonishing final chaconne, was the undisputed highlight of the evening. The latter, of course, is accustomed to transcription - Brahms, Busoni and Segovia, to name but three, all arranged it for their instruments. But the viola is particularly suitable (provided one does not mind its being played a fifth below written pitch) and one could argue that its weightier sound brings an even greater than usual profundity to the music - especially when it is this well played.
While the first four movements were very fine - the flowing Allemanda, the lively but serious Corrente, the lovely Sarabanda and the dancing Giga - it is that final Ciaccona, longer that all four previous movement combined, and which still stands as one of the supreme statements of Western Art, that really took the breath away. It seemed almost disrespectful to take notes.
Paul gave of his very finest here, showing that his instrument can combine both profundity and energy - those lengthy arpeggiated passages were quite thrilling. It was a fitting end to a fine recital and left the audience, if only briefly, silent and awed.
It would be paltering with the truth to suggest that Paul possesses all the insights of a Milstein or a Casals - yet. But he clearly loves this music and his fine performance left me with the hope and desire to be around and in the right place to hear him play it again in, say, twenty years.
There was only one work on the programme which was actually written for the viola, György Ligeti's Sonata.
Compared with much of Ligeti's music, this was almost conventional - heavens it even came complete with melodies and a passing resemblance to tonality in places.
It also featured some hair-raising rhythms and tremendous technical challenges - such as the double-stopped second movement, Loop - which sounded like nothing so much as a deranged Bartók quartet played on a single instrument.
To all of these challenges, and more, Paul rose with aplomb, playing stylishly and with great accuracy. He produced a wonderfully, richly eloquent zigeuner tone in the opening Hora lunga and some unearthly harmonics at its close. In fact each movement was clearly characterised and beautifully played.
The opening piece was Bach's Cello Suite No.1, BWV1007. Here, although Paul's playing was once more all but irreproachable, I felt that the viola tended to sound a little lightweight for the music; I hasten to point out that this is, I feel, due entirely to the natures of the instruments themselves rather than any shortcoming of Paul's - I feel the same about Rivka Golani's recording of the suites.
Nonetheless, there was plenty to enjoy in Paul's performance, from the opening Prelude - with a fine sense of dynamics and wonderfully big sound, which filled the space - to the nippy final Gigue. (Incidentally, I have no idea why Bach used Italian in the violin partita and French in the cello suite.)
For me the highlights of the performance were the quite delectable Sarabande and the minor key second minuet, played with an almost feline grace and some marvellous half tones.
A most rewarding evening.