The viola and its practitioners have been subject to music's most cruel jokes since time immemorial, mostly having to do with the instrument's low key profile next to the glamourous violin. But make no mistake, some of the world's greatest musicians including Mozart, William Primrose and Yuri Bashmet were violists themselves.
This chamber concert on Monday at Esplanade Recital Studio, presented by Chamber.Sounds and showcasing young Singaporean violist Jeremy Chiew, underlined the integral and indispensible role of the viola in chamber music. Importantly, it represents the middle voice in chamber combinations such as the string trio and string quartet. Bookending this evening's 90-minute offering were performances of piano quartets, a genre less often heard than the piano trio or piano quintet.
Gustav Mahler's early and incomplete single-movement Piano Quartet In A Minor would scarcely be recognisable as typical Mahler. Watered down Brahms or a follower of Brahms would be closer to the mark, but the ensemble of Chiew with violinist Lee Shi Mei, cellist Lin Juan and pianist Lim Yan brought out an edgy account of late Romanticism that was well-balanced in terms of instrumental timbres.
The central bloc of programming was reserved for Chiew to demonstrate a variety of possiblities on his instrument, beginning with four movements from JS Bach's Suite No.1 In G Major (BWV.1007), originally written for cello. He crafted a steady and robust tone, illustrating how clear melodic lines with a single voice can be achieved in these short dance pieces.
The art of pizzicato came to the fore in Garth Knox's Nine Fingers from Viola Spaces, when he dispensed with the bow and plucked his way through this rhythmically exacting exercise. There were different ways of plucking too, each producing a varying effect in the spectrum of twangs depending on the direction and how much pressure or vigour was applied by the fingers.
Pianist Lim Yan was able partner in Chiew Keng Hoon's highly chromatic and almost atonal Fantasy (1985). Chiew, who is violist's father, would have been proud of both musicians' high level of concentration and articulation in its astringent pages that were reminiscent of those by Paul Hindemith, the great 20th century German composer and violist who wrote some of the best works for the instrument.
Henri Vieuxtemps' Elegie Op.30 also found a passionate response, its yearning, long-breathed melody becoming increasingly dramatic and agitated as the work progressed. The grand finale was devoted to Schumann's Piano Quartet In E Flat Major (Op.47), with the same complement of musicians that opened the concert.
Its serious Beethovenian beginning and declamatory four note motif were stated trenchantly, signalling the common intention of the performers to keep the pace taut and tightly reined.
The first two movements flew with a bristling urgency, contrasted with a most languorous of songs in the slow third movement, where each stringed instrument took turns to luxuriate in Schumann's lyrical largesse.
There was a curious moment when Chiew's viola crooned unabated over Lee's violin filigree while Lin tuned his cello in order to play the low B flat note. The final outcome with a depth of sonority at the end was a moment to savour before the quartet launched into the finale's busy runs of counterpoint.
Loud applause greeted its end, and if there were a neat story to take home, that would be that the viola is not to be regarded the Cinderella of instruments, but as a first among equals.