Yuri Bashmet

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COMPOSERS: Yuri Bashmet
LABELS: RCA Red Seal
WORKS: Viola Sonata in F minor; Viola Sonata in E flat, Op. 120; Two Songs, Op. 91
PERFORMER: Yuri Bashmet (viola), Mikhail Muntain (piano), Larissa Diadkova (contralto)
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 63293 2
Brahms himself feared that his two late clarinet sonatas were ‘a little awkward and unsatisfactory’ on the viola. Few there are who can persuade me he was wrong: Tabea Zimmerman is one; Yuri Bashmet the other. Within the first few bars of the F minor, Bashmet has set out his stall: an astonishing muscularity, violinistic projection and intensity, a dazzling range of timbres. Brahms’s own assessment that ‘These unassuming pieces will not disturb our repose’ was surely coy: it is their expansive, arresting grandeur that a great violist can reveal and the venerable Mikhail Muntian, Bashmet’s regular partner , brings largesse and profondity in equal measure.

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Bashmet brings out his instrument’s deeper recesses, that inner, under contralto which reaches us at a visceral level of consciousness and tells richer, stranger stories. The two sonatas are like night and day: a darkling meditation followed by a breezy lyrical ballad. The supple, inky Bashmet voice comes into its own as the Fminor first movement draws to a close and the slow movement’s melody, with its halting accompaniment,begins its tenderly reflective journey. This is one of the magical movements on the disc, where pianist and violist transform a pretty clarinet piece into something more human and rough-hewn. They bring a seductive rubato to the musing Allegretto grazioso – the quintessence of all Brahms’s happy scherzi and minuets – and an impulsive energy to the Allegro. Here what you lose of the clarinet’s purity you gain from Bashmet’s pungent attack.

Always the voluptuary, he luxuriates in the long lines of the E flat sonata, bringing an entirely appropriate weight and heft to this outpouring of song. Like the first two movements of the F minor, this Allegro Appassionato is on the slow side, but no one can argue with the sheer power of delivery. Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin’s fine ECM recording suddenly appears small and four-square in comparison.

Unlike the sonatas, the two op. 91 songs included here were written for viola and voice and make an ideal coupling: Bashmet provides the sinew to Larissa Diadkova’s large and liquid contralto. In the delightful Sacred Lullaby, his warmth and control pull an over-operatic Diadkova back to earth.

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The recording places the viola forward – Bashmet has nowhere to hide – and piano occasionally seems over-resonant. But its immediacy is compelling : these are two masters at work.