Masterclass: Rosalind Ventris on Vieuxtemps Viola Sonata op.36


The British violist details the virtues of this underappreciated B flat major Sonata, with all of its structural surprises and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ twists and turns

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When Henri Vieuxtemps (1820–81) was nine years old his violin teacher, Charles de Bériot, was so impressed by his playing that he took him from his Belgian home for a concert tour in France. At the age of 13, on tour in Germany, he met Robert Schumann, who compared him to Nicolò Paganini. Bériot, the leading protagonist of the Franco-Belgian School of violin playing, influenced him greatly, and his own pupils later included Eugène Ysaÿe. He also became a serious, analytical composer, having studied counterpoint with Simon Sechter, who taught Bruckner and Eduard Marxsen, the latter of whom later taught Brahms.

I am a big advocate for Vieuxtemps’s beautiful viola pieces, so I was surprised to read, in the June 2017 issue of Gramophone, a review stating that, ‘you’d struggle to find any transcendent masterpieces among’ Vieuxtemps’s viola works, whose ‘obscurity appeals to ambitious players hoping to make a dent in the viola repertory’. To me this seems quite harsh: this op.36 Sonata, for example, is meaty, challenging, fun and I love playing it. There is so much contrast in the music that there’s no time to get comfortable with anything. One moment it’s dreamlike, nostalgic and calm, then it suddenly wakes up with fast, dramatic runs. It keeps you on your toes and it shows off the viola in a wonderful way that was very unusual for its time (1860), in an era when both Wagner and Berlioz complained about the technical incompetence of violists.

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