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Making the penthouse rock. A viola?

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Aug 11, 2014 11:23 AM

via mostlymozart.org

I had never seen the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse looking so good. This is the space at Lincoln Center with the vast windows and a cityscape outside those windows: New York twinkling. Twinkling at night, I should say. (I have never been to the penthouse in the daytime, but I trust there’s no twinkle.)

The Mostly Mozart Festival holds its late-night recitals in the penthouse. They are one-hour affairs beginning at 10 pm. The festival calls the series “A Little Night Music.” Get it? A Mozart festival (or mostly Mozart festival).

And why had I never seen the penthouse looking so good? There was no piano on the stage. I had never seen the stage without a piano. And without that honking thing in the way, the cityscape is nicer than ever.

There was no piano onstage because we were going to hear a solo viola recital. Yes, an unaccompanied viola recital. Have you ever heard of anything so odd?

The viola is one of the least loved and most mocked of instruments. There are lots of viola jokes. I once brought up the subject with Lawrence Dutton in a public interview. Dutton is a well-known violist and a member of the Emerson String Quartet. “Larry,” I said, “why do they tell viola jokes? Why do people pick on viola players?” He gave me one of the most surprising answers I have ever received in an interview—any interview, of any type.

He said, “Because the quality of viola playing has been so poor. The jokes are deserved.” Dutton explained, and complained, that there has always been more talent in violin playing than in viola playing.

Well, Antoine Tamestit is someone for violists to be proud of. He is a Frenchman, a product of the Paris Conservatory. And it was he who gave the solo recital in the Kaplan Penthouse.

He took the stage and immediately, confidently, launched into Bach. He did no talking beforehand. Apparently, he was happy to let his instrument, and Bach, do the talking. Is that legal in America nowadays?

What he played was the suite we know as the Cello Suite No. 1 in G major. It was interesting to hear that viola sound. (Tamestit plays a Strad, by the way.) It is neither fish nor fowl. I don’t mean this in a bad way; I mean it in a quite positive way. The viola is not a violin, though there is a violin aspect to its sound; and it is not a cello, though there is a cello aspect to its sound. The viola is a ’tweener.

The Prelude was a little fast for my taste, but Tamestit was confident in his tempo. And he did not sound rushed. The Sarabande, he shaped beautifully. The Minuets, he really made dance. They had a marvelous lilt. And the Gigue was alive and fresh. In the course of the suite, Tamestit emitted a squeak or two. Other than that, he was immaculate. And his musical judgment was superb.

Besides, the squeaks simply let you know this was not a studio recording (thank heaven).

Through with the Bach, he launched into talking—which I suppose was inevitable. I can’t prove it, but I believe that administrators encourage musicians to talk from the stage, or perhaps require them to do so. And they are all too happy to oblige. Tamestit explained that he was going to play Hindemith, and he talked about the connection between Bach and Hindemith. He gave a little music-appreciation lecture.

It is certainly true that Hindemith revered and reflected Bach. I once heard about a woman for whom there were three composers, and only three composers: Bach, Bruckner, and Hindemith. A straight line ran through them, she said. Of course, Bach fathered many composers (and not just literally).

Hindemith is one of the best friends the viola ever had. He penned many sonatas for that instrument. Tamestit played the sonata catalogued as Op. 25, No. 1.

The first movement was full, nearly orchestral. A single viola can produce all that? Tamestit was relishing each note, interval, and rhythm. The third movement, a slow movement, has a touch of “Bist du bei mir,” I swear. That is the sweet, profound song from the Anna Magdalena notebook. People say it is not by Bach. Those are the same people who say that the Toccata and Fugue in D minor is not by Bach. They are killjoys.

(And I’ll give up the Toccata and Fugue—Bach’s authorship of it—long before I’ll give up “Bist du bei mir.”)

Hindemith’s fourth movement boasts one of the most enjoyable markings ever: “Rabid in tempo. Wild. Beauty of tone is strictly incidental.” (I translate somewhat loosely.) Tamestit played this movement with blazing virtuosity. And in the last movement, he was huge, and moving. This was good, honest music-making and musical communication.

The audience roared in response. Then Tamestit played another Bach cello suite, No. 3 in C major. The audience roared again, louder. This was an opera-style ovation. The Kaplan Penthouse rocked.

Tamestit played an encore, a Ligeti piece, before which he gave another music-appreciation lecture, not all that interesting. I believe he should have left well enough alone—and concluded the recital with the C-major Bach suite. The encore was superfluous, and a bit of a comedown.

Regardless, Antoine Tamestit is an excellent musician—a musician’s musician—and a credit to his instrument. If you had told me that one of the best recitals or concerts of the year would be a solo viola recital, I might have doubted you. But it was.

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