Thursday, 2 December 2010

NOBUKO IMAI Viola Recital / Review

NOBUKO IMAI Viola Recital
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Tuesday (30 November 2010)


This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 December 2010.

Whoever dreamt up all those cruelly humiliating viola jokes had obviously not heard a good violist perform, let alone a great one. The Japanese violist Nobuko Imai is among a handful of world-renowned practitioners of this much-maligned stringed instrument, and her recital a showcase of rare artistry that provided much pleasure as well.

Beginning with congenial Schumann, his Three Fantasy Pieces (Op.73) ambled from pretty slow to rather fast, like a warm up before the main event. Already Imai’s sumptuous singing tone and wonderful way with legato was in evidence, sensitively partnered by pianist Albert Tiu.

On her own, one began to truly appreciate what a viola can do. In the spare, astringent sound world of Benjamin Britten’s unaccompanied Elegy and Solo Suite No.1 (transcribed from the cello original), the instrument truly came into its own. Its low alto register made for poignant stretches of music written on a single line, as in the Lament and Cantos, like a lone voice in a vast wilderness. Its power to conjure up imagery of shadowy desolation, and to move stone cold hearts seemed boundless.

In polyphony, further possibilities were opened up, gratefully lapped up by Imai’s penetrating clarity and immense mastery. With searing and almost frightening intensity, the closing Moto Perpetuo spun to spellbound and dizzying heights.

In Toru Takemitsu’s viola concerto entitled A String Around Autumn, an altogether different smorgasbord of sonorities was presented. In its Zen-like meditative score that seldom ventured beyond a narrow dynamic range, Imai was yet able to differentiate between many different shades of pianissimo. Tiu’s impressionistic piano part (transcribed by Toshio Hosokawa) provided the variation of timbre that made this dreamy, otherworldly work stand out.
As if planting a riposte to violinists, Imai was joined by three other violists, together with cello, bass and harpsichord (including faculty and students of the Conservatory) for Bach’s Sixth Brandenburg Concerto. This is the one concerto remembered for its warmth and mellowness of sound. The reason? Violas, of course. The result was a totally delightful outing, capped by the lovely aria of a slow movement and a hearty final jig.

Imai’s encore, Hosokawa’s transcription of Handel’s aria Laschio ch'io pianga from Rinaldo, was sublime and unforgettable. From now on, no more viola jokes.
Nobuko Imai plays solo, while others watch.

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