From Phantasy (the joyful, exuberant opening work by York Bowen) to Fantasie (the concluding, exhilarating, ever-popular bit of theatre by Franz Waxman), violist Matthew Lipman and his pianist partner Henry Kramer deliver a thoroughly entertaining, continuously engaging recital, an expertly programmed mix of mostly 20th century works (including a couple of world-premieres) composed for this very agreeable combination of instruments (the Waxman is heard here in its first performance with viola) that both demand and reward repeated hearing.
In his single-movement, 15-minute Phantasy, Bowen packs more thrills and spills, melodic and harmonic twists and turns, and fanciful displays of technique than are usually found in entire multi-movement sonatas and concertos. There’s an exciting, free-spirited expressiveness contained in Bowen’s well-crafted score, embraced and expounded by both players, enhanced by the expertly conceived viola part (Bowen was an accomplished violist) and ideally conveyed through the naturally compatible timbres and assertive qualities of both piano and viola. This is a terrific work, one that should be better known and more often performed. (If you find yourself drawn to this music—and you will be—an earlier recording on Naxos by the Bridge Duo contains the Phantasy and Bowen’s two very fine sonatas for viola and piano.)
Lipman commissioned composer Clarice Assad to write a piece “in memory of his mother”. Her Metamorfose is a two-movement masterpiece that captures the difficult expressions of memory, loss, grief, and recovery, and gives Lipman and Kramer lots of expressive room to process and explore these emotions, intensely, lyrically, fervently, fiercely, tenderly. Schumann’s Märchenbilder (Fairy-tale pictures) has been recorded many times, but its inclusion here, in a program “enraptured by flights of fantasy” and mystery, makes sense, and you will not hear it better played, with more spirit and spark and commanding technique, than here.
Following the Bowen, Assad, and Schumann, Garth Knox’s Fuga libre (2008) seemed to me overwrought, too long, and trying too hard. It’s a noisy, often frantic work that you may get used to (I was more comfortable with it after the third or fourth hearing), but with a piece like this—Knox is a well-known figure in contemporary performance and composition circles—you have to accept the composer’s certain stylistic proclivities. Obviously, Lipman felt it a good fit for the program–and as a violist I can see why you might want to dig in to this kind of music. But, when you really want to dig in, there’s nothing like Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie, and Lipman and Kramer don’t disappoint. I loved the viola in this music: it’s tone, richer, sexier, and more sensuous than the violin’s—and equally brilliant—makes a more effective solo voice. And again, Lipman and Kramer play it to the hilt.
As a kind of bonus, Lipman was able to gain access to a tiny little bit of newly discovered (2017) Shostakovich: an Impromptu (Op. 33) for viola and piano. It’s from 1931 and was lost until found in the Moscow State Archives. It’s a delightful little two-minute gem, totally Shostakovichian, and not surprisingly, on hearing it you only want to hear more. And then it’s over. Luckily you can just press repeat and hear it again, as you can with this entire recording—which you certainly will. Highly recommended.