Vivid sounds from viola duo

REVIEW / CONCERT

VIVA VIOLA!

Jeremy Chiew & Daniel Ong, violas, with Lim Yan, piano

Esplanade Recital Studio/Last Friday

The cause of the viola has found a new champion in Jeremy Chiew, who has done more than anyone today to promote the instrument in his chamber recitals. Let it never be said that the viola is performed only by "failed violinists" because it is fiendishly difficult to perform well, hence the relative paucity of repertoire and its apparent lack of glamour on the concert stage.

The 70-minute-long recital opened with eight Duos by Bela Bartok, originally for two violins but arranged for violas by his son Peter. Chiew was joined by his student Daniel Ong, principal violist of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra, who more than showed that he has been well mentored.

These short pieces were written with pedagogy in mind and get progressively more complex. Most were based on folk songs and dances and the duo were very well matched, taking turns on playing melody and providing accompaniment and counterpoint. Their chemistry in these engaging pieces was palpable, climaxing in the trickily syncopated Hungarian Dance 2 and Pillow Dance that closed the suite.

Next was Henri Vieuxtemps' substantial Viola Sonata In B Flat Major Op. 36, which saw Ong play the first movement and Chiew helming the second and third movements. Ong was a portrait of confidence in its slow but majestic opening, with a piano accompaniment that resembled that of Schubert's Ave Maria performed by Lim Yan.

Introspection soon grew into turbulence and agitation in its development, which also saw a commensurate expansion of the viola's vocal range. Chiew's part included a gentle Barcarolla (a gondolier's song), which also had a passionate side to it before a playful dance-like finale upped the tempi and finished with a blaze of aplomb.

The final work was all of Chiew's to handle, Paul Hindemith's early Viola Sonata In F Major (Op. 11, No. 4), which, unlike his later and more astringent works, was unusually lyrical. A Brahms-like autumnal feel inhabited its opening Fantasie, which was just the invitation to display a warm, ingratiating tone. The subsequent movements took the form of variations, providing more opportunities for an almost improvisational approach to its themes.

An obligatory fugato in the finale marked "mit bizarrer Plumpheit", or "with bizarre crudeness", was as droll and mock-serious as one could possibly get and both Chiew and Lim played with straight faces and tongues firmly held in cheek. A splashy virtuosic close to the sonata was greeted with warm applause.

Chiew's encore was appropriated from the violinist's repertoire, Fritz Kreisler's short but demanding Praeludium & Allegro In The Style Of Pugnani. With excellent intonation and articulation, Chiew made it sound as if it was originally meant for the viola.

Violinists have good reason to be green with envy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2016, with the headline 'Vivid sounds from viola duo'. Print Edition | Subscribe