Bach: Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin
Kurtág: Three pieces from Signs, Games and Messages
Reger: Suite in G Minor op. 131d/1
Hindemith: Sonata for Solo Viola op. 25/1
Bach: Cello Suite No. 3
Tabea Zimmermann this evening gave a whistlestop tour of major contributions to the solo viola repertoire down the centuries. Bach has long been a member of that pantheon, despite not having written any works for solo viola. But by framing the programme with transcriptions of Bach’s violin and cello works, Zimmermann was able to show just how influential they have been in this repertoire. That provided a useful handle on the more recent works, some of which is fairly demanding on the listener. Yet nothing ever seemed a challenge, thanks largely to Zimmermann’s engaging but unassuming musicianship, and to her warm and always engaging tone.
The Wigmore Hall acoustic is ideal for many instrumental combinations, but it’s not usually put to the service of a solo viola. As it turns out, the sound here is about as ideal as could be imagined for this alto-cum-tenor instrument, particularly in Zimmermann’s hands. Her playing style is very definite, and often strident. The acoustic picks up the details of her quiet playing, sharing the intimacy to all present, but amplifies and projects the louder passages, particularly in the lower registers, which it imbues with a rich, cello-like sonority.
That was as true of the Bach Violin Sonata as it was of his Cello Suite, perhaps more so. No mention was made it the programme of how much transposition had taken place in the arrangement for viola, but plenty of this music was in the instrument’s lowest register. Zimmermann’s performance was gutsy and visceral, with plenty of rubato shaping the phrases. The only clue that the work was not originally for viola was the presto finale. It’s a fingerbuster on the violin, but on the larger viola the challenges are even greater. Yet Zimmermann made no concessions, playing it as fast as any violinist, and with just as much clarity and grace.
The three pieces from Signs, Games and Messages are typical Kurtág: short, aphoristic, but otherwise almost impossible to describe in words. The second of them had been written for Zimmermann, and listening to her performance of all three, it was clear why her playing of his music had inspired the composer. When he writes pp ornaments, wholly disembodied and appearing in the very highest register, for example, she dispatches them with ease. His guttural glissandos retain their edge under her bow, but seem as natural as any other playing technique. And her ability to switch between the absolute extremes of dynamic from one bowstroke to the next gives her the advantage over almost any other player approaching this repertoire.
In any other context, the Reger Suite would seem to be music of extremes, but following Kurtág it seemed positively genteel. In fact, the more useful comparison here was with the Bach that opened the programme, and not only for the similarities. It is a commonplace to say that Reger’s solo string suites are modelled on Bach, but in fact there is more going on. Zimmermann emphasises all the Baroque counterpoint, but also acknowledges the music’s late Romantic dimension, all those lyrical lines and chromatic transitions. But there is plenty of counterpoint (or pseudo-counterpoint) in here too, which she presents with clarity and zest. Like the Bach Sonata, Reger’s Suite ends with a fast movement, and the technical virtuosity here was extraordinary.
Anybody who has heard Zimmermann’s recent recordings of Hindemith’s solo viola works will know that this is music in which she particularly excels. The Op. 25/1 Sonata that opened the second half was the highlight, and the focal point, of the programme. However appropriate the music of the other composers may have seemed to the viola’s qualities, it was clear from this work that Hindemith had the clear advantage of actually playing the instrument himself. The music is often brash, and often austere, but there is a beguiling beauty to it as well, and Zimmermann perfectly captured its many paradoxes. Hindemith writes big-boned, muscular music for the viola, which is ideal for Zimmermann as that is exactly the style in which she excels most. She’s capable of subtlety and nuance as well, of course, but the very forward, direct and honest style of Hindemith’s mature music brings out all her best qualities.
That was really the climax of the recital. It ended with Bach’s Third Cello Suite, but that felt more like an epilogue. The dimensions of this music are smaller and more intimate, and Zimmermann made no effort to expand it to the scale of the previous works. Instead, we heard a performance of great agility and refinement. The sound of the bow against the strings occasionally crept in under the narrower tone, and the attacks on notes became as important as their pitches. For the final movement, the Gigue, Zimmermann adopted a positively rustic tone, folky and earthy, with the music propelled by an insistent underlying rhythm.
A varied programme then, but one that showed off many aspects of Zimmermann’s prodigious talent. The Wigmore acoustic served her well, although the sheer confidence and body in her tone suggested that she’d sound good anywhere. The recital didn’t fill the hall, or even come close, which was a shame, but was received with rapt attention and rapturous applause by the small but enthusiastic audience.