Michael Traub
2 minute read
7 Sep 2013
10:00 am

Violin virtuosity

Michael Traub

The Russian string player, Sergey Malov, demonstrated his versatility by playing no fewer than three widely different string instruments - violin, viola, and viola da spalla (also known as violoncello da spalla).

Picture: Julia Wesely

The latter instrument looks like a very small cello or a large viola, but is strung from the neck of the player by a strap and not placed under the chin. Da spalla means “of the shoulder”. I had never heard of the viola da spalla, but there stood the entry under “viola” in a good music dictionary.

The recital began with the Brahms Cello Sonata in E minor, opus 38, but transcribed for viola . Essentially this meant little more than that the cello line was often transposed upwards by one octave though occasionally the cello line was at a pitch within the viola’s compass and required no transposition.

The reworking was a great success because where sometimes the cello would have growled low down, the viola sang sweetly in its best deep range.

Sergey Malov’s intonation was flawless, and ensemble with the pianist, Bryan Wallick, was equally exact. Malov drew burnished tone from his instrument, which I heard had been borrowed in South Africa.

Bach’s Solo Cello Suite in G major (listed in the programme puzzlingly as being in E-flat major, which is another suite altogether), was played on the viola da spalla. Here I found the string tone somewhat colourless compared to a cello’s average tone, but there was no mistaking the expertise of the playing.

What one has to remember is that the positioning of the stopping hand is different for each string instrument, and the player’s movements have to be adjusted – no small technical feat.

After the interval came two works written for the violin and played on the violin. They were the Sonata No. 3 in A minor by Enescu and Tzigane by Ravel.

Enescu (sometimes spelled Enesco) was a Romanian, and in this sonata he used themes of either folk origin or themes imitating folk music from Romania. Written as a large, commanding work, the music requires first-rate virtuosity from both violinist and pianist, both of whom in this case responded magnificently to the unique idiom which marks the composer’s style.

Also inspired by Eastern Europe, Ravel’s Tzigane draws on gypsy idioms and is famously difficult to play: virtuosity to end all virtuosity, as it were. I have heard more fire drawn from the opening unaccompanied section though once the piano joined in there was no lack of sparkle and thrust.

In complete contrast was the encore, a transcription of a song by Falla, slow and reflective.