Monday, 03 December 2012 

The viola is not generally thought to have quite the same glamour as the violin or the cello, especially as a solo instrument. But why not? Monday’s concert in the current series hosted by Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts sought to put that right. Jessica Beeston is familiar to Aberdeen audiences as the viola player with the Edinburgh Quartet having replaced her father Michael in that role. It was gratifying to see her take her rightful place centre stage along with pianist Andrew Johnston. They appear together as The Lothian Duo. Their programme turned out to be a real treasury of musical gems especially the final work, the Viola Sonata by the early twentieth century English composer Rebecca Clarke.

The opening piece was a work by Schubert that has found its way into the regular repertoire even although the instrument for which it was originally composed is now virtually extinct. This was the Arpeggione Sonata which was played by Margaret Preston in a version for flute at a Chamber Music Concert in December 2000. I have heard it twice in the last few years played on cello but Monday’s transcription for viola and piano worked outstandingly well.

Jessica Beeston’s playing in the opening movement had an admirable suppleness about it that suggested something of the fluency of the Arpeggione itself. The opening of the movement had lightness and delicacy from the viola but also a satisfying expressiveness too. Andrew Johnston made the piano part sing out nicely and the movement ended in delightfully jaunty mood.

The slow movement recalled Schubert the composer of song and the viola was like a beautifully expressive mezzo here. If the slow movement expressed the spirit of song, the finale was all about the dance. The jauntiness from the end of the opening movement was raised to new levels in this performance by the Lothian Duo.

In Schubert’s piece the piano had a largely accompanying role but in Schumann’s Märchenbilder Op.113, viola and piano were more like equals. In the opening piece, the liquid piano playing was a delight while the viola sang gently. In the second, Lebhaft, this was indeed as the programme note promised a gallop through fairy woods. In the third movement the piano was once again to the fore while the viola murmured darkly. The final section exploited the viola’s lower singing register, this time suggesting a deliciously smooth baritone voice.

After the interval the musical spirit of North East Scotland was brought alive in two finely crafted arrangements by the celebrated Scottish violist Watson Forbes: the gently honeyed melody The Lea Rig and then the more lively Whaur Gadie Rins.

Perhaps suggesting the Entente Cordiale it was on from Scotland to France and two more songs this time by Gabriel Fauré, the beautifully smooth Après un Rêve and Fleur Jetée with its dramatic piano part.

By now we were convinced that the viola deserves more time in the spotlight and soon we were to agree with the programme writer Dr Lydia Thomson when she wrote of Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata, “This fine sonata deserves to be much better known!”

It is true that in this work the influence of Debussy can be felt in the luminous harmonic writing but for me this was also a deeply English work with more than a suggestion of Vaughan Williams in it. This is not to say that the work is just a pastiche of these composers. Rebecca Clarke has her own authentic voice expressed in the sheer richness and variety of the content of the work. The end of the opening movement even employs the special rocking viola technique used by Berlioz in his Pilgrims’ March from Harold inItaly.

Most impressive was the central scherzo with its sparkling piano writing and intricate viola work. As the movement progressed the piano became more luminous, the viola more sinuous and sensuous. The variety of instrumental texture in this movement was remarkable.

In the slow finale, the English roots of the music became more pronounced with a pastoral feel and the use of folk-like material. It is sad to read that although Rebecca Clarke lived well into her nineties only twenty or so of her hundred compositions were published in her lifetime and apart from this marvellous Sonata all were forgotten by the end of her life.

Lothian Duo review