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Bliss, Goehr & Borisovsky

Viola Sonata

Kabalevsky Improvisation (arr. Power)
Musorgsky Une larme (arr. Power)

Shostakovich/Borisovsky Barrel Organ & People's Holiday from 'The Gadfly'
Tchaikovsky/Borisovsky April & October from 'The Seasons' Op. 37b
Musorgsky/Borisovsky Hopak

Goehr Hymn to Night (World première)
Prokofiev/Borisovsky 8 Pieces from the ballet 'Romeo and Juliet'

Lawrence Power viola
Simon Crawford-Phillips piano

Wigmore Hall, 30 June 2010

An interesting, unusual recital programme. Lawrence Power is one of the most accomplished violists before the public, given to exploring the repertoire for his instrument, which has enjoyed increasing popularity, attracting a good audience with many members of the Tertis Foundation there (I met Lionel Tertis in his latter days). *

The first half began with the substantial Bliss sonata (1933, premiered by Tertis & Solomon) demanding for players and listeners alike, with the pianist kept busy with dense figurations characteristic of music of the time. Although an important composer and Master of the Queen's Music 1953–1975, Bliss's reputation remains insecure [Wikpedia]. He had doubts about the sonata, which is nearly half an hour long, feeling that it might be more acceptable orchestrated as a concerto, which Sir Arthur never got round to doing.

Beforehand there was (all too common!) announcement of programme alteration, with a corrections slip available out in the foyer for those many who hadn't bought the programme; £3, which at many regulars jib at... After the sonata, we had what came across as a selection of Russian encore pieces, mostly arranged from orchestral originals by Vladimir Borisovsky, onetime violist of the Beethoven Quartet, who made more than 250 arrangements for viola. They were nice enough, and cleanly despatched, but the atmosphere was somehow wrong. They would go better at a different, more relaxed, venue, at the end of an evening, with drinks in hand?

After the interval we had a rather opaque new work by Alexander Goehr, which seemed to hark back to the modernism of the '50s-'60s. His own note for Hymn to Night told us that it was a fantasia on "a paraphrase of Beethoven's Op 18/6 La Malinconia" - completely unrecognisable from that clue, and related to a Chapman text ending "thy glorie, riches, force and Art"; likewise unhelpful.

We then got to what was, for us, the crux of the recital, eight of Borisovsky's thirteen viola arrangements from Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet ballet. They were very beautiful, with many opportunities for textual subtlety from Crawford-Phillips at the piano. These, taking most of half an hour, proved to be far the most memorable items in a quite long recital.

Why any reservations about this so accomplished display of viola playing? In the first half, one noted Power's staid demeanour, with a lack of visual hints of passion or charm to help the audience into the music.

Again, the severity of the Wigmore Hall ambience may have contributed; photographing players there is forbidden, so I include, instead, a shot of the platform during the interval, with a rail which clearly demarcates the performers' area from the audience's - good manners are expected of everyone.

Nonetheless, this was an interesting recital, well worth having gone to. Arrangements play a significant part in today's music-making. The previous night we heard a massive LPO in movements from one of Prokofiev's Cinderella suites; it sounded overblown for music which can charm (q.v. the Lyon ballet DVD).

Tonight's offering was surely the precursor to a Power/Borisovsky CD (Power is not a man for DVD...) of arrangements for viola, with Romeo & Juliet its centre?

Peter Grahame Woolf

*See review of Hindemith viola sonatas.