Bashmet and Kissin at their finest in memorable Shostakovich

By Lawrence Budmen

Yuri Bashmet

The Arsht Center’s classical series concluded its season with the powerhouse duo of violist Yuri Bashmet and piano superstar Evgeny Kissin on Thursday night in Miami. There were a surprising number of empty seats in the Knight Concert Hall for this rare joint appearance by two renowned artists.

While Bashmet was a frequent presence in American concert halls during the 1990’s, including numerous South Florida appearances, he has been rarely heard  on this side of the pond in recent years. A true aristocrat of the viola, Bashmet radiates instrumental mastery with ease of projection and a penchant for surprising musical choices. He opened the program with Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata in A minor.

Written for a long-obsolete instrument, this lovely score is usually the property of cellists but translates to the viola remarkably well. Bashmet’s clear, light sound coupled with Kissin’s poetic touch at the keyboard brought noble serenity to the opening movement. The elegance of Bashmet’s phrasing tended to smooth out Schubert’s jagged edges but the sheer beauty of tone and the artists’ supple collaboration was compelling. In the Adagio, the duo artfully traced the long arc of Schubert’s lyrical melody. The finely calibrated mix of intricate classical detailing and flashy bravura in the variations of the finale proved irresistible.

Brahms’ Sonata in E Major is an arrangement of one of his final scores, originally written for the clarinet. It is hard to imagine a wider leap than the one between that  wind instrument and the viola. In this work, Kissin was more assertive, exhibiting some of his accustomed pianistic firepower. Bashmet brought an appropriate autumnal glow to the opening movement, his tone lovely and phrasing elastic. The Allegro was rhapsodic, the players’ edgy tonal compass at times sacrificing the musical line. In the final movement, Brahms’ clarinet leaps, invariably exciting in the original, sounded tame on the viola despite Bashmet’s artistry. Best heard in its original incarnation, this work is a mixed blessing in the viola transcription.

Evgeny Kissin

Saving the best for last, Bashmet and Kissin gave a deeply probing, intense reading of Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata, the only work on the program actually conceived for the instrument and the difference was palpable. Written as the composer was dying of lung cancer, the sonata is Shostakovich’s last work, posthumously premiered in 1975 by Fyodor Druzhinin, Bashmet’s teacher. After a lifetime of being monitored and censored by Soviet cultural bureaucrats, this score stands as Shostakovich’s final artistic will and testament, a dark, bleak creation by an artist finally free from government-imposed orthodoxy.

The opening, softly plucked notes on the viola turn into the angular principal theme of the initial Moderato. In the violent central episode, Bashmet and Kissin unleashed throbbing emotive power. Eerie high harmonics and wild leaping figurations interrupt the dance macabre of the second movement. Playing with great immediacy, the players offered a terrific display of precision at unusually fast speeds.

The performance reached its zenith in the searing final Adagio. Throughout this slow, deeply poignant movement, Bashmet and Kissin sustained a crescendo of overpowering tension. The music reaches final resignation as the viola’s last sustained tone seems to fade away into silence. Here two superb Russian musicians powerfully channeled the score’s heartfelt Russian angst, a memorable conclusion to a unique recital.


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Fri Apr 22, 2011
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