Lawrence Power & Simon Crawford-Phillips at Wigmore Hall – Schumann, Shostakovich & York Bowen

Märchenbilder, Op.113
The Gadfly – Suite [arr. Borisovsky]
Sonata No.1 in C minor for Viola and Piano, Op.18

Lawrence Power (viola) & Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 1 December, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Regular attendees of and listeners to the BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at Wigmore Hall were offered an interesting opportunity to compare York Bowen’s First Viola Sonata, an early work of 1905, with Brahms’s Second Sonata, his last published chamber work, performed a month ago by Maxim Rysanov.

Bowen’s work is boldly romantic, not as subtle perhaps, but with its grand gestures and sweeping melodies it makes an undeniable impact, complemented by a piano part seemingly unlimited in scope. Given a passionate performance it becomes a heartfelt musical statement, and in Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips the Sonata has found enthusiastic advocates who have lived with it for some time, including a recording for Hyperion.

Particularly enjoyable was the humour the pair found in what could have been a throwaway theme at the end of the (repeated) first-movement exposition, while the lyricism of the central movement reminded one of the opening to the aforementioned Brahms. Crawford-Phillips, who found the dexterity required in the tricky right-hand runs of the finale, taken at quite a lick, enjoyed Bowen’s harmonic sleights.

With lyricism and drama in abundance, Power and his accompanist made a strong case for the work, the rich tone of the viola ensuring the lower melodies were also clearly heard. From Power these were beautifully phrased, and ensemble – even in the tricky syncopation of the finale – was commendably secure.

No less dramatic was the four-movement suite from Shostakovich’s ballet The Gadfly, arranged by the founder-violist of the Beethoven Quartet, Vadim Borisovsky. Crawford-Phillips was given a lot to do in the accompaniment for ‘Scene’, which sounds more like Swan Lake, but he was nonetheless restrained enough to give Power’s full tone room to project. ‘People’s Holiday’ had rustic charm, while ‘Romance’ – one of those pieces that brings instant recognition in its many guises – was played with affection.

The pair began with Schumann’s Märchenbilder, his only original work for viola and piano, exploiting the mellow lower range of the string-instrument in a particularly baleful ‘Nicht schnell’. Power was especially alive to the lyrical possibilities afforded by the restful ‘Langsam’, the last of the four pieces, where the soft tone was beautifully shaded and accompanied, the oft-repeated (though lovely!) melody fresh in each rendition.

The central movements created more tension and energy, though the fanfares of the second piece threatened to become overblown and the third piece also lost a little definition in its louder passages. These relatively minor quibbles aside, the pair gave a passionate performance that revealed the music’s slightly melancholic character.

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