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This concert, rescheduled from earlier this spring at Carol Woods Retirement Community, was eagerly anticipated because of the rare chance to hear two remarkable sonatas for viola and piano. One was composed by Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-81), a violin virtuoso who founded the Franco-Belgian school of violin playing. Rebecca Clarke's 1919 Sonata was the first major success of a pioneering woman composer and professional player. The performers were Sam Gold, principal violist of the NC Symphony since 2013, and James Rice, a very able Triangle freelance pianist who teaches at the Triangle Music School in Durham.
Besides of his technical mastery, violinist Vieuxtemps was known for his serious repertoire, such as his early advocacy for Beethoven's Violin Concerto and (with Anton Rubinstein) violin sonatas. Vieuxtemps' Viola Sonata, Op. 36 (1860), is in three movements: Maestoso-Allegro, Barcarolla: Andante con moto-Allegretto tranquillo, and Finale: Scherzando: Allegretto.
Vieuxtemps' long and very slow introduction quickly revealed Gold's subtle control of a range of very quiet dynamics. His intonation was immaculate, and his broad tonal palette was ravishing. The rest of the first movement ran the gamut of moods, now fiery and brilliant, now soothing and reflective. With his piano lid fully raised, Rice supported Gold with perfect balance while tossing off the composer's far from undemanding twists and turns. Both brought out the almost operatic melancholy of the second movement which gave ample chances to probe the viola's lower range. Gold and Rice took every opportunity to exult in the playful high spirits of the Finale.
As a work, Clarke's Viola Sonata was not an unsullied success. It was composed for a competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in which pieces were submitted anonymously. There were 73 works for viola and piano. The six judges deadlocked between two finalists, Clarke and Ernest Bloch. Some did not believe so fine a work could have been composed by a woman. Coolidge broke the tie, giving Clarke second prize. After decades of neglect, a 1976 broadcast celebrating Clarke's 90th birthday helped make it one of the most often performed major works for viola and piano, with over a dozen recordings. It is in three movements: Impetuoso, Vivace, and, Adagio-Allegro.
Gold and Rice gave a magnificent interpretation of Clarke's gorgeous and truly remarkable sonata. More than once its harmonies and color reminded me of the English folk song school such as some of Vaughan Williams' pastoral works. What richness Gold brought to the viola part! Rice spun the Impressionist episodes flawlessly. A highlight for me occurred in the second movement, with Gold's muted viola pp above Rice's eerie rippling piano accompaniment. Another was the haunting sound of viola tremolos bowed close to its bridge in the last movement. Both artists then brought out the mercurial splendor of the Finale.
Music lovers ought to explore these composers on two Naxos CDs. Naxos 8.555262 has the Sonata plus four other viola works by Vieuxtemps, played by Roberto Diaz and pianist Robert Koenig. Naxos 8.557934 has ten fine works by Clarke including her Viola Sonata, played by violist Philip Dukes and pianist Sophia Rahman. There is extensive information about Clarke at the Rebecca Clarke Society website.