Friday, July 24, 2015

Review: Summer at CenterStage

Stephen Schmidt, viola
John Walter, piano
July 23, Richmond CenterStage

Five years ago, violist Stephen Schmidt and pianist John Walter played the Viola Sonata (1919) of the English composer Rebecca Clarke in a Richmond Chamber Players program. The two musicians reprised the piece, even more successfully, in the most recent Summer at CenterStage recital.

In one of several enthusiastic and informative spoken introductions in this program, Schmidt said the Clarke is his favorite viola sonata. That soon became audible in an expressively engaged performance, in the animated first and second movements and the lyrical finale. The violist characterized Clarke’s style as impressionistic – which indeed it is, notably in the central vivace, whose rhythmic and gestural language strongly resembles Claude Debussy’s; but Clarke also echoed the English pastoral school in the closing adagio.

Schmidt sounded less fluent in Franz Liszt’s transcription of “Harold in the Mountains,” the first movement of Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy.” The original work is a symphony with solo viola as its frequent but not constant protagonist, and Liszt’s reduction of the orchestration to a virtuoso-piano showcase tends to overshadow if not diminish the viola’s role further. Here, the violist strove to maintain parity with the piano, played with extroverted brilliance by Walter, and taxed both tone and technique in the process.

Between the two viola pieces, Walter played Debussy’s “Estampes,” a set of three sonic pictures evoking Indonesian pagodas, evening in the Spanish city of Granada and the less place-specific “Gardens in the Rain.” The pianist played with great tonal clarity, especially in the shimmering effects that this composer so favors, as well as effective contrasts of dynamics and an unerring sense of the significance of the spaces between notes in Debussy’s piano music.

Summer at CenterStage continues with cellist Jason McComb and pianist Joanne Kong in a program of Debussy, Fauré, Dutilleux and Franck at 6:30 p.m. July 30 in the Gottwald Playhouse of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $20. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);