Orchestral musicians are very like squaddies and schoolchildren, most notably in their penchant for ya-boo jokes: witness their puerile digs about the poor sods who play that instrumental Cinderella, the viola.
(What is the difference between a violist and seamstress? The latter tucks up the frills...geddit?). But the tide is turning: this year the Last Night of the Proms actually starred a viola player (the Ukrainian Maxim Rysanov), while Britain’s Laurence Power is heading a growing phalanx of younger exponents.
Meanwhile Kim Kashkashian and Yuri Bashmet have long kept the flame alive for this discreetly distinctive instrument, whose timbre and range give it a unique advantage both in ensembles or for solo work. It’s bigger than the violin, and tuned a fifth lower, with a darker and warmer sound: Bach’s solo cello suites can sound wonderful on it. The richness of its harmonics make it ideal for carrying the inner voice in string groups; while the violin flies high, the viola can connect us to the earth.
As a former winner of the Yuri Bashmet competition in Moscow, Nils Monkemeyer’s place in the viola’s apostolic succession is assured, and the programme he chose for his Wigmore recital was designed to show how composers have been drawn to it. No Mozart – despite the fact that he played it - but we did get Hindemith, who was both a leading viola player and also a prolific composer for it: it’s just unfortunate that nothing he wrote was music of the first rank. Monkemeyer and his pianist Nicholas Rimmer made the best possible advocates for his Sonata No 1 Op 11 No 4 – written in the first flush of demobilisation after the First World War - but were unable to lift it out of its Schumann-Brahms-Debussy time-warp.
The rest of this concert made a magnificent showcase for the viola’s capabilities. Arvo Part’s ‘Fratres’ – originally written for mixed chamber ensemble, but subsequently put through many other arrangements – allowed Monkemeyer to calibrate his sound from wispy-thin to massively substantial, as he wove his stately patterns round the simple triadic theme.
But Brahms’s two viola sonatas were the centre of gravity: initially composed for clarinet, but immediately re-composed for viola, these late chamber works were his swansong, and their gracefully valedictory quality was here bodied forth in a way the clarinet could never have achieved.