What use melody?

Enikő Magyar, viola
Timothy End, piano

Delius – Violin Sonata no.3 (arr. L. Tertis)
PattersonTides of Mananan
BridgeShort Pieces
WilsonMürrische Erde, wp
Bliss – Sonata

St John’s, Smith Square, 2 December 2009

The tone of the viola, fuller and darker than the violin’s, is an obvious draw for composers, but it is its range, closer to that of the human voice, that recommends it as a consummately melodic instrument. Even its famous appearances in contemporary music (one thinks of Feldman, or Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques) remain essentially lyrical.

Enikő Magyar’s recital focused on British 20th-century repertoire for the instrument in which melody was very much to the fore. The viola writing in the two substantial sonatas by Delius and Bliss that framed the concert takes all the usual roles of providing form and direction although, in both cases, the melodies themselves aren’t always strongly characterised.

A collection of Frank Bridge’s short encore pieces for viola and piano allowed more space within the music for a modern interpretation to come through. For all melody’s primacy it is revealing to hear past it into the accompaniment. Melody then comes to sound like an architectural support, a canvas stretched above something stranger and more fragile. Bridge stayed just the right side of sentimental thanks in particular to Timothy End’s piano playing, which had an acute sensitivity to attack and dynamic that sharpened, focused and grounded in present reality Bridge’s the potentially mushy viola lines.

The two newer works were more fragmentary. Patterson’s piece, an evocation of the magical Manx  and Irish hero Mananan, illustrated its subject through a compendium of viola effects that held together, I think, by some underlying consistency of harmony. Wilson’s piece is, essentially, a transcription of the solo part from Sullen earth, for violin and orchestra, a piece I have written sleevenotes for. Without the orchestra gluing the disparate elements of the solo line together one might expect Mürrische Erde to run into problems. On the contrary. Maybe it was a consequence of hearing the piece live (something that hasn’t been possible with Sullen earth). No doubt it was something to do with Magyar’s performance – which in this piece found an electrifying delicacy – but for me it worked even better. My lasting impression was of half-developed photographs hung on a line, and a cold draft blowing. There are, beneath the surface fragmentation of this score, fragile connections in terms of favoured intervals, rhythms and figurations. The components of melody, in fact. But at what point does melody stretch too far and break like a string of pearls? Just as one wonders whether Wilson has crossed that line, he introduces the simplicity of a medieval French folk tune, which Magyar played absolutely straight. As, in that moment, everything mystifyingly came together, you could have heard a pin drop.

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