Music :Hindemith Viola Festival Wigmore Hall, London

'The Octet ends with the viola joke to end all such... It brought the house down'
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The Independent Culture
Anticipating the current fashion for viola jokes by a good 25 years, Hindemith's Octet ends with the viola joke to end all such. Given that the composer himself was playing at the 1958 premiere, one can imagine the raillery when the first viola saw what awaited him in the work's final bars, a hilarious and totally unexpected whirlwind of scales and bravura while everyone else cadences nonchalantly. It brought the house down in the opening programme of the Wigmore Hall's International Hindemith Viola Festival on Wednesday night, and it wasn't the only joke to strike its mark in this infectiously humorous masterpiece.

Humour that arises from purely musical processes, rather than onomatopoeia or joky allusions, is a rare commodity, and if Hindemith is not usually associated with the likes of Haydn or Rossini, the Octet certainly reconfirmed its ability to draw laughter while maintaining compositional integrity. It was performed with style and wit by members of the London Sinfonietta.

The festival, timed to mark the centenary of Hindemith's birth, was spiced by two or three such pieces, focusing on the viola as an ensemble instrument. But it was, of course, solo work that provided the main fare, and Wednesday's opening programme also included two of the composer's most attractive concertante items - the gravely ceremonial Trauermusik, written in a single day to commemorate the sudden death of King George V; and the "folksong concerto" Der Schwanendreher, which typifies Hindemith's increasingly relaxed style during the 1930s.

The soloist here was the remarkable festival director herself, Nobuko Imai, who brought a deep-toned cantabile and rich characterisation to her playing. She was superbly supported by a packed stage of instrumentalists from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, while Tadaaki Otaka directed with zest and affection.

A festival commemorating such a trail-blazing violist-composer would not have been complete without contemporary work for his instrument, and on Friday evening we heard Peter Maxwell Davies's remarkably concentrated The Door of the Sun for unaccompanied viola, and Takemitsu's A bird came down the walk, for viola and piano, typically free-ranging in its integration of Western techniques and Eastern aesthetics. Roger Vignoles was the fine pianist.

Significantly, there was also a newly commissioned piece for viola solo, David Horne's Stilled Voices, which Imai premiered to considerable effect. The tensions that arose from Horne's interleaving of passionate and coolly static materials cohered in an arresting structure.

This wide-ranging programme also included Hindemith's arrangement for viola and piano of the beautiful "Meditation" from his ballet Nobilissima Visione and the Solo Sonata of 1937, a little drier than the sensational Sonata of 1922, but here played with vigour and gravity by Imai.

A more unusual item was the early expressionist song-cycle Des Todes Tod for female voice (a passionately committed Jean Rigby) with accompaniment for two each of violas and cellos. Striking in overall effect, if less than memorable in thematic substance, it showed the considerable distance in terms both of technique and of emotional control which Hindemith had to travel before he could write the other two works.