Tonight I was at Carnegie Hall to hear Yuri Bashmet and Evgeny Kissin perform Dmitri Shostakovich's Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147. This was truly an important musical event of the first order. Bashmet is undoubtedly the greatest violist of his generation, and Kissin is among the greatest pianists of his generation. They both grew up in the Russian musical education system in which Shostakovich was the looming great creative figure, and are fully imbued with his musical style. Put this together with the piece itself — the final ruminations of a great musical genius contemplating his imminent death — and you have the makings of an extraordinary event. The concentration in the hall was intense. By the end, the silence was palpable, and everyone was clearly moved. It felt like a privilege to be there.
Unfortunately, I could not say the same for the first half of the program – Franz Schubert's Sonata in A Minor, D. 821 (The Arpeggione Sonata), and Johannes Brahms's Sonata in Eb Major, Op. 120, No. 2. Neither of these pieces was created with the viola in mind. Schubert wrote his sonata for a strange, now obsolete string instrument called the arpeggione, a sort of a cello but not quite. Violists and Cellists have appropriated the piece, but it sits comfortably for neither, and it is not generally accounted among Schubert's front-rank inspirations. The Brahms Sonata was one of a pair written under the inspiration of a great clarinet virtuoso. Realizing the limited marketing prospects for a clarinet sonata requiring that degree of artistry, Brahms made arrangements of the two works for viola. Because violists have such a slim solo repertory of 19th century romantic music, the pieces are now played as much or more by violists as by clarinetists. And, for me, they work much better as clarinet sonatas.
Bashmet and Kissin are, as noted above, artists of the first rank, and they turned in fine performances of both pieces. But I thought this was such a lost opportunity to promote the fine 20th century repertory of music conceived for this pairing. The emergence of great violists in the 20th century – Tertis, Primrose, and of course Bashmet – means that lots of pieces, either commissioned or spontaneously created, have emerged for viola and piano. Why take the occasion of a Carnegie Hall recital when one can anticipated a packed house to spend half the program on over-played arrangements, when original music for these instruments could have been given the same star treatment as the Shostakovich?
Enough of my whining. It was a real event to be treasured. Thanks to the musicians and thanks to Carnegie Hall for presenting it.