Yuri Bashmet (viola) with W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Yuri Bashmet (viola)
with W.A.Symphony Orchestra


Matthias Bamert, conductor

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Black-clad from head to toe, his angular features framed by long, jet-dark hair, Yuri Bashmet, eerily resembling the legendary violinist Paganini, cuts a striking, sombre figure.

He stands before a truncated W.A.Symphony Orchestra. It is a most singular sight – the WASO minus all its violins. It is as if the viola, that Cinderella of the strings section, must, for once, have no competition at all from its brighter-toned cousins, nothing to detract from its bleak majesty. In place of the absent violins are three keyboard instruments with Graeme Gilling at the piano, Cathie Travers seated at the celeste and Faith Maydwell playing the harpsichord.

Bashmet, as is well known, is a prince of the viola, a musical magician capable of making it sing in a way that few can emulate – or ever could. It comes alive in his hands. But in Alfred Schnittke’s Viola Concerto, its song is one of almost unrelieved sadness, even despair. The concerto is, in fact, one of the most sombre in the entire canon; for the most part it explores a world of emotional darkness where the chief sounds are cries of pain or anguish or regret.

But it is not always so. Every now and again, there is a brief departure from this claustrophobic gloom – a folksy little dance episode, a lilting snatch of waltz. But these vignettes do little to raise the pall that hangs over the work; they are overwhelmed by its pessimism. And even in the central allegro molto of the concerto, where then music is far busier than in the movements that flank it, the prevailing moods are those of urgency and panic, expressed in tone of astonishing power.

There’s a huge, sustained ovation at concerto’s end for a superbly probing performance; it is thoroughly deserved. Bashmet is a generous soloist; he insists on acknowledging conductor Matthias Bamert and orchestra for a job well done. He is particularly warm in his gestures to his fellow violists in the WASO. And after being presented with the obligatory bouquet of flowers, he gallantly tosses it to Sophie Kesoglidis in the viola section.

This is no run-of-the-mill concert for Kesoglidis; she is on study leave in Melbourne but makes the trip back to Perth just for the experience of playing in an orchestra that accompanies this most august exponent of the instrument.

Bashmet’s gallant gesture is a charming, light-hearted move which dissipates the gloom of what had gone before like the sun peeping over the rim of a black cloud.

Earlier, we heard the WASO in a transcription for orchestra by Stokowski (with whom Bamert had worked as a young conductor gaining valuable experience) of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV582. It unfolds with commendable style and taste; it is one of Stokowski’s less vulgar and violently coloured orchestrations and makes a fine curtain raiser. And after interval, Bamert presides over an account of Brahms’ Symphony No 4 paying as much attention to detail as conveying the grand sweep of the work.

Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn

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