The viola, important as it is in any string or symphony orchestra, tends to be little heard as a solo instrument or accompanied by another instrument. The latter case normally sees the viola being accompanied by a piano as on this occasion at the 25th-anniversary edition of the VIAF. It was commendable of the Festival to attach some importance to the viola yet again, as it has done a few times during past editions.
Maltese-born residing in the UK, Peter Fenech is a determined, studious young man fully committed to his instrument, which as he showed during this recital, he plays with passion and ardour. Those characteristics were very much the case too with his accompanist, who in an unusual order of things performed his first solo at the very beginning of the recital. Like an ominous knock at a door, the first bars of Chopin’s Scherzo n. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 31, unleashed a torrent of energy which had a pretty impressive sweep. I found certain pauses just a little too over-dramatic, leaving too much tension hanging in the air. The lyrical, mid-section of the work sailed through calmer waters of utter sweetness and charm. Back to a tempestuous mood, the work went, as it was in the opening section but there was a little more restraint although the build-up to the conclusion was pretty furious but never at the cost of clarity.
The first duo piece was a charming Romanze, Op. 83 by that supreme melodist Max Bruch. It is a late work and for all that it was composed in 1911, it is still steeped in what was already considered old-fashioned Romanticism. Frankly, who really cares when the work comes across so charmingly with the kindly warmth of the viola as could be felt and heard in many if brief mood-setting episodes. It was a gorgeously relaxing piece which was far from being the case with the almost wild re-working by György Cziffra of Johann Strauß II’s waltz, the much-loved An der schönen blauen Donau , op. 114. Better and more simply known as The Blue Danube, Cziffra’s is such that it seems to go in every direction and after the slightest of hints of the many different themes which enrich this waltz, it wanders off before one could register it in one’s mind. It is a work of great virtuosity which the pianist handled extremely well and with amazingly clear prestidigitation, as Cziffra demands but this was totally undanceable. It seemed like what Liszt in a foul mood would have done for the sake of sheer virtuosity. No-fault of the pianist of course.
It was, as far as I was concerned, back to a stylish comfort zone and to hear the full beauty of the solo viola in Capriccio in C minor, Op.55, homage à Paganini, by Henri Vieuxtemps, one of the greatest violinists of the 19th century. Because of its sub-title, one expects and does find many an opportunity to hear what kind of stuff the viola player is made of. The work is just about five minutes long but packed with difficult hurdles but Peter Fenech was very much up to the challenge, a tribute to his technical and musical abilities.
The crowning work of the recital was the second of the Sonatas for Viola and Piano by Brahms. This work is in E flat Major, Op. 120, n.2, and like its companion piece, is also very well known in the composer’s own version for clarinet. These two sonatas are practically the composer’s swan song(s). It is a warm, crepuscular work, which tempo marking like the initial Allegro amabile opens a window into the tender heart of an outwardly gruff and grumpy man in his twilight years. The unlimited flow of lyricism continues in the Allegro Appassionato. As in the andante con moto which moves into a final Allegro non troppo, as after all from the beginning, the balanced complementary forces of viola and piano produced a wonderful atmosphere of serenity as well as playfulness in the finale’s theme and variations.
Albert George Storace