Rather too easy does it

With the viola legend Yuri Bashmet on the menu along with a new piece by Alexander Tchaikovsky, you’d expect the works… Hmmm

By John Shakespeare Dyson | June 30, 2019


In the second week of the İKSV Istanbul Music Festival the Moscow Soloists and viola-player Yuri Bashmet gave a concert at Hagia Eirene on Thursday, June 20. Sitting in the grassy area between this venerable Byzantine pile and the inner gate of Topkapı Palace before the concert began, I watched the multitude of birds perching in the branches of the ancient plane trees and the swallows flying around in the sky above. While thus pleasurably engaged, the somewhat politically incorrect thought occurred to me that if I had been an Ottoman sultan, rather than setting out to conquer the world I would have been quite content to spend my time bird- and tree-watching – until I was bumped off for lack of initiative, of course. It was a beautiful evening.

In a remarkably short space of time, and after a certain amount of blundering around the seating area, following up false trails, my companion and I managed to locate our seats, which although quite far from the stage were at least centrally located rather than, as it were, in the wings. This was a relief: I had feared that owing to my inability to comprehend the logic of the numbering system we would not be able to seat ourselves before the concert began. It was also good to see that since last year the chairs have been upgraded, so the danger of sore hindquarters is now greatly reduced. However, it seems to be quite impossible to repair the broken window panes in the Hagia Eirene, and we had a pigeon flying around above us at various times during the proceedings.

Before the music began, Yuri Bashmet was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by Mr Bülent Eczacıbaşı on behalf of the İKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts). At this point, a few words on Mr Bashmet’s wide-ranging activities and his awesome reputation will be in order. I will quote from his own website:

There are certain musicians who God and Fate have destined to follow an artistic path by way of which they become figures in the art of music who open new horizons for future generations. Yuri Bashmet is undoubtedly such a musician, having established the viola as a leading instrument on the contemporary concert stage.

Yuri Bashmet was born in 1953 in Rostov-on-Don. In 1971, he graduated from the Lvov Special Musical Middle School and entered the Moscow Conservatory, where his teachers were Professors Vadim Borisovsky and Fyodor Druzhinin...

Contemporary composers – among them Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaydulina, Edison Denisov, Mikhail Tariverdiyev, John Tavener, Ghia Kancheli and Alexander Tchaikovsky – have specially composed for him or dedicated to him more than 50 works.

Yuri Bashmet took up conducting in 1982 and, in doing so, brought added luster to his reputation as a bold and fearless contemporary musician.

‘Fearless’ seems to be the ‘in’ adjective – the one everyone is using these days to describe a musician they wish to praise. I still haven’t understood what it means in terms of an artistic activity that is as scripted as classical music is, but anyway it sounds good.

Yuri Bashmet has in the past carried out some highly laudable projects: the Moscow Soloists chamber ensemble was founded by him in 1992, and since 2002 he has served as Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the New Russia State Chamber Orchestra. It was he who was responsible for the inauguration of the world’s first viola competition, held in Moscow, as well as for setting up the international charitable fund which created the Dmitry Shostakovich Prize, awarded annually to outstanding musicians. For many years he performed together with Sviatoslav Richter (I have provided a video of the two playing Hindemith at the end of this piece, by the way). Last but not least, Mr Bashmet’s charity gigs at the Carnegie Hall have featured Elton John and Stevie Wonder. The account on his website concludes with the following peroration: ‘It is difficult to overestimate Bashmet’s contribution to world peace. As a citizen of the world and a brilliant musician, his name belongs among those of the leading figures of the 20th and 21st centuries.’

From this I think you will understand that Mr Bashmet is something of a celebrity. Statements like ‘There are certain musicians who God and Fate have destined to follow an artistic path by way of which they become figures in the art of music who open new horizons for future generations. Yuri Bashmet is undoubtedly such a musician...’ do tend to create a certain feeling of expectation.

The Moscow Soloists consist of 15 string players – eight violins, four violas, two cellos and a double-bassist. The first piece on the programme was Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’), originally written for string sextet in 1899 – during the composer’s early period, before he started playing with atonal music. I referred to this piece, and to the 12-tone technique Schoenberg subsequently invented, in my review of the piano recital by Karim Said in June 2018.

What we heard was the arrangement of Verklärte Nacht for string orchestra, made by the composer in 1917. This work is a ‘tone poem’ – an instrumental composition with plot content. Here is a basic run-down by Betsy Schwarm on the ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’ website.

This performance of the string orchestra version is by members of the Radio France Philharmonic, conducted by Pierre Boulez:

Another description of Verklärte Nacht, this time from the ‘Edition Silvertrust’ website, claims that the orchestral version ‘loses the sense of intimacy of the original’.

Now here is the original version for string sextet so that you can compare it with the orchestral version and decide if you agree with the above comment. In this recording, Pierre Boulez is conducting members of L’Ensemble intercontemporain:

At any concert in Hagia Eirene, one always has to bear in mind that the place has a long echo, and the acoustics tend to create a blurry sound. So when the Moscow Soloists, conducted by Mr Bashmet, produced a sound of this kind in the Schoenberg, I initially put it down to the acoustics. In time, however, I came to understand that the dynamics (that is, the composer’s indications as to how loudly or softly each part of the music is to be played) were not being observed as strictly they might be, so the contrasts were not coming across effectively. In addition, the musicians did not seem to be getting behind the piece: it was a somewhat ‘painting-by-numbers’ performance.

The second item on the menu was a work by Alexander Tchaikovsky entitled 3/7/12, specially composed for the Moscow Soloists and Yuri Bashmet – specifically, in fact, for their concert in Istanbul. Alexander Tchaikovsky is described in the concert programme as ‘Professor, Chairman of Composition Division in Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory’ and ‘Artistic Director of the Moscow Philharmonic’. He also served as advisor to the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg from 1993 to 2002, and as Rector of the St Petersburg Conservatory between 2005 and 2008. A very distinguished man, it seems.

‘3/7/12’ is a suite in three movements. The first is based on only three notes – C, E flat and G – while the second allows itself a slightly more generous sound palette of seven notes, and the third uses the full range (that is, all 12 of the semitones that make up an octave). Prof Tchaikovsky’s own programme note said the following: ‘I have tried to show that even a work consisting of three or seven notes can have a large number of variations. Moreover, I have probably not used up even one percent of the available permutations. If I had exploited all the possibilities in the first movement, which I have based on the notes C, E flat and G, it would probably have resulted in a piece at least an hour long – possibly, even, an hour and a half.’

Yes, Prof Tchaikovsky, but with all due respect, one does tend to get tired of hearing the same three notes. After only two minutes of the first movement I was sick to death of C, E flat and G in various combinations (the three notes collectively form a chord of C minor), however cleverly manipulated those notes may have been in the hope of ringing the changes. I consoled myself as best I could with the thought that the veiled threat of extending the duration of this movement to an hour had not been carried out. In the second movement there was a viola solo from Mr Bashmet that was, I fear to say, out of tune. During a dramatic pause in this movement, someone’s telephone gave out its cheery ring tone – in C minor, of all keys! The third movement had some interesting chords towards the end, providing temporary relief from the tedium. Otherwise, I freely confess that Prof Tchaikovsky’s offering bored the pants off me. It was a prime example of the music of the current era: endless repetition thinly disguised with some slight variation to sugar the pill of grinding monotony. (I have to admit, however, that the brain-deadening aspect is probably a plus for a generation whose brains are so thoroughly infiltrated by Artificial Intelligence that they will willingly listen to a four-bar loop for hours on end. So neat! So undemanding to listen to! So satisfyingly mechanical!) The audience lapped it up, and showed their appreciation with rapturous and prolonged applause.

And so the interval intervened. The outside world continued to please. The trees were still there. Yes, the birds were more subdued than they had been previously, but perhaps they had good reason to be so. I fully sympathised, and did not feel the need to ask them to explain.

The second half of the concert began with a performance of the Nocturne for Viola and Strings in D minor by the 19th-century Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich. The most frequently-heard version of this piece is the arrangement for cello and orchestra, made by the composer, that was first performed in 1888; the viola version is an arrangement by R. Balashov. Here are two descriptions: the first, by James Reel, is from the ‘AllMusic’ website, while the second is from ‘Tchaikovsky Research’. Both focus on the cello version.

I have been unable to find a satisfactory performance of the arrangement for viola and orchestra on YouTube; there are several recordings of the cello-and-orchestra version, however, and here is one in which cellist Boris Andrianov is being accompanied by the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Alim Shakh. Novosibirsk may not be a name that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of classical music, but in fact the Glinka Novosibirsk State Conservatory is a very respectable institution that has produced some fine musicians:

Mr Bashmet’s performance as solo viola in this work was marred by infelicities of intonation. At the most emotionally telling moment in the piece, just before the triumphant return to the home key (D minor), the viola goes from a C sharp to the B flat above it. The B flat may indeed have been above the C sharp, but it was well below B flat, if you see what I mean. I was moved to speculate that perhaps the spirits of Messrs Brahms and Liszt might have paid a visit to the soloist before the concert. At one point there was a beautifully played solo from the leader of the first violins, however, and that was at least some compensation. Indeed, there were no weak links in the Moscow Soloists’ chain: they are a formidable ensemble, and do not carry dead wood.

The last item in the concert on June 20 was Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, D 810, a string quartet written in 1824 that was later arranged for string orchestra by Gustav Mahler. A description by Rovi Staff from the ‘AllMusic’ website gives the basic facts about the quartet.

In this account from ‘The Great Courses Daily’ website, Prof Robert Greenberg supplies you with fuller background information – including the poem on which the work is based.

The following performance of Death and the Maiden by the Alban Berg Quartet has all the drama you could wish for:

The performance below, which describes itself as being by ‘Pavel Hůla+Praga Camerata’, has the score. This must be the arrangement for chamber orchestra by Mahler.

I am happy to report that the Moscow Soloists were on top form for this piece. For the first time in the concert they appeared to be really getting into the music. (What a relief! At last I can say something nice!) Their playing had that indefinable quality known as ‘grace’, and their pianissimo passages were a delight.

I have been pretty hard on Yuri Bashmet, too, so I think it would be only fair to give the reader a taste of what his playing was like in his heyday. In this video, made in 1985, he teams up with Sviatoslav Richter in a performance of Hindemith’s Viola Sonata Opus 11 No 4:

Finally, here is a 1981 Russian documentary that contains (at 14:53) a terrific extract from one of Brahms’s viola sonatas – the slow movement of Opus 120 No 1. Jolly well played, Mr Bashmet! A positive note on which to leave a largely unsatisfactory concert is always a blessing:

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