Viola's dark and dusky sonority



Esplanade Recital Studio/Last Friday

Why have violas and violists long been given short shrift? Singaporean violist Jeremy Chiew, who organised this viola fest for the Kris Foundation, provided valid reasons in a short preamble. For example, the viola's size and volume militated against possessing the violin's sweetness or the cello's mellowness and projection.

He could, however, comfort himself with the viola's dark and dusky sonority, especially in the context of playing with other string instruments.

The opening work was a delightful duo featuring Christoven Tan's viola and Leslie Tan's cello in the first movement of Beethoven's "Eyeglass" Duet.

Composed for a cellist friend who needed corrective lenses for his short-sightedness, this was a match of equals with the viola (which Beethoven played) given the leading voice. That both performers here were bespectacled was no surprise in myopia-prevalent Singapore and there was no surprise either in tautness of ensemble, with each instrument alternating between providing melody and accompaniment.

The combination of viola and violin also worked well in the well- known Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, with Chiew and Chikako Sasaki respectively. Whatever agility the violin mustered was equally matched by the viola (which replaced the customary cello) in its masterful set of very short variations.

When two violas came together, as in Frank Bridge's elegiac Lament, the depth of sound was doubled. Seldom has a work sounded this soulful or long-breathed, with two similar voices mirroring and echoing each other, Chiew and Tan bringing the work to sonorous perfection.

Perhaps the most demanding solo fell to 16-year-old Calvin Dai, who played two movements from Brahms' autumnal Viola Sonata No. 2 (Op. 120 No. 2) with Benjamin Lim on piano. A member of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra, Dai brought out a very decent burnished sound and was able to skilfully vary the dynamics for the expressive Allegro Appassionato.

The evening's gem was undoubtedly the performance of Mendelssohn's late String Quintet No. 2 In B Flat Major (Op. 87), published only after his death. In the piece modelled on Mozart's string quintets which uses two violas, Chiew and Tan were joined by Sasaki and Andrew Ng (violins), and Leslie Tan (cello).

The full impact of strings was immediately felt in the opening Allegro Vivace, bursting with energy and vitality. The listener is reminded of the earlier and much more familiar String Octet, but this was just as absorbing, with all five players working in close tandem.

Here, the violas played a vital supporting role for Sasaki's first violin and Tan's cello which had most of the big tunes. For without violas, such a work would lack heft and sound far less rich as a result. Theirs was not to hog the limelight, but to enhance interest, as demonstrated in the feathery light Andante scherzando and the impassioned Adagio E Lento slow movement.

The finale was on the short- winded side, but that did little to diminish the overall stature of a memorable and utterly compelling reading.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2017, with the headline 'Viola's dark and dusky sonority'. Print Edition | Subscribe