Review: Katie Wilkinson and Marios Argiros in the Menuhin Room

Katie Wilkinson and Marios Argiros, Menuhin Room, Portsmouth, May 11

Two last works by two essential composers make one wonder if they sought out the maturity of the viola in the knowledge that they had deeper thoughts to express by that stage. They didn’t have the same things to say by any means and maybe Brahms did first have the clarinet in mind for his op. 120 but in any esoteric debate about it, he wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of a viola version without good reason.

If Brahms had reasons to suffer on account of being neither Beethoven or Clara Schumann’s husband, even those hurts don’t compare with those undergone by Shostakovich, who somehow remained capable of writing lighter, playful music but, as ‘last words’ go there’s a vast difference between the moods they found themselves in.

Brahms op.120 no.2 opens with a melodic line as velvety as any that had gone before, with Marios providing the dramatic flourishes from the piano but the old man, 63, is becalmed and unregretful for the most part. Allegro amabile is upgraded to appassionata with grander ambitions before the third movement emerges from some sotto voce gazing into eternity and then ending with relish and vivacity from both players. 

That was a very fine thing and op. 120 no. 1 would have made for a fine programme with it and nothing to complain about at all. But that is betting without the Shostakovich op. 147. Beginning with fractured pizzicato and chilly atmosphere, the moderato is storm-tossed and then shimmers bleakly. Katie delivers it all with tremendous, but never over-stated, panache and cadenzas that serve to emphasize one’s solitariness in an empty universe.

Shostakovich is often at least half-joking, and needed to be, and the Allegretto is a sceptically lively folk scherzo. At his most considerate, he gives the viola open strings to play so that the other hand can turn the page. But he’s not joking much in the Adagio, an unworldly fragmentation of the Beethoven Sonata no. 14 that he didn’t say was moonlit. It achieves such stillness, like time itself stopping as that theme emerges and breaks up in both parts. There might be other music that goes to further limits of consciousness but not much that does it so coherently and compellingly. The last note he ever wrote moves through twelve bars, an E back in C major, including ten semibreves and that is his final resting place, flatlining towards the silence that it implies.

I don’t always convince everybody that Shostakovich was the greatest composer of the C20th but while Sibelius 5 was on the wireless this morning and I’m very aware of other candidates, I need no further evidence myself. While music played live and in the flesh is ever likely to be better than anything that comes out of a disc, the difference was never better demonstrated than it was today.

That was scintillating, an edge of one’s seat performance, glued to it, and I’m very glad that Katie and Marios do requests and can be booked if you happen to find yourself in the same pub as them. Sometimes things work out for the best. 

David Green

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