Sonatas For Viola And Piano
Henri Vieuxtemps: Sonata for viola and
piano in B flat major, op. 36 (1863)
On a mountain
Sander and I spent the New Year’s period of 2009, together with my mother and her family in a cottage on a mountain. Already in the summer, six months earlier, my mother had invited us to stay on this beautiful, big mountain called Mt. Kuju, to celebrate New Year all together. She excitedly told me about the luxurious cottage where every room was equipped with its own hot spring bath. When we arrived, we discovered that the rooms were so pleasantly comfortable and warm you’d never guess to be on a snowy mountain. Thanks to the many
events that were planned for the New Year’s period, including a bingo tournament, rice cake pounding event and lion dance spectacle, we were able to spend a few wonderful days together. It still brings a smile to my face when I recall Sander’s shaky rice cake pounding attempts and the slightly sulky look on the face of my mother, poor loser as she was, when she had to yield the palm to a child in the bingo game. On my mother’s request, we borrowed the grand piano in the bar to play a piece. We chose this sonata of Vieuxtemps, which we had then just added to our repertory. The bar being a public space, quite a number of other guests came to listen
as well, so it resulted in a mini-concert. The sparkling ambience of this piece befitted that special New Year atmosphere remarkably well. Not only was it very enjoyable to play in that atmosphere, but to our delight, my mother and the other guests seemed to really appreciate it as well. No-one of us, especially not my mother, could have imagined during these great moments that only ten months later she would be diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The sparkling, virtuosic mood of this sonata is really characteristic of Vieuxtemps, who was such a brilliant virtuoso on both violin and viola. He prompted his friend Schumann to call him ‘little Paganini’, and indeed, he could rival the great Paganini with his virtuosity. As a leading performer and composer, Vieuxtemps traveled around a lot, but the place where he was most acclaimed was no doubt Russia. He resided long years in Saint Petersburg as a court musician to the tsar, meanwhile also contributing greatly to the later success of the Russian violin school at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Especially in the Russian-style melodies of the second movement of this sonata, one can sense the influence of his lengthy stay in Russia.
Paul Hindemith: Sonata for viola and
piano in F major, op. 11, no. 4 (1919)
Alle Menschen müssen sterben
(“All men must die” – title of the last movement of Hindemith’s trumpet sonata)
The last time Sander and I saw my mother was in March 2011. Already in February, the doctors had informed us that her condition had become unstable. So in March, as soon as the international chamber music competition in which we participated in Portugal came to a close, we flew to Japan. During our stay in Portugal, a devastating earthquake and tsunami had struck north-east Japan and the Belgian government had expanded a travel warning, making the way back to my homeland Japan not without difficulties. Though my mother had become much weaker, she still had enough energy to enjoy the pictures of the grand prix trophy we had received in Portugal and the souvenirs we had bought there. Fortunately we were able to use a music studio just across the street from the hospital, where we took her in a wheelchair, the whole family coming along. On the electric piano of the studio, we played this sonata, which we had shortly before played in Portugal. Later on the family told me that my mother’s eyes had devoured us. After the last note, she grabbed Sander’s hand and kept saying “Now I’m at peace.”, and that was the very last time she left her hospital room. Another day, hoping it would be a nice distraction for her, we put a DVD player in her room to show her live recordings of a concert of me in Switzerland and a concerto performed by Sander with his orchestra. Despite the excruciating pain, she sat up straight on her bed for nearly an hour, her eyes glued to the screen. I feel truly grateful when I think that this was the posture of someone who had been wishing for Sander and me to succeed as musicians till the very end, never ceasing to support us. Apart from being a famous composer, Hindemith was a known viola player as well, and in this sonata, the most romantic of his viola compositions, one can really feel his love for the instrument. He composed it in 1919, just months after the First World War had come to an end. I imagine that both the world and the composer, who had participated in the war himself, could have been in need of music that would heal their wounded hearts.
Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for viola
and piano in C major, op. 147 (1975)
Until we meet again
Although this sonata had been in our repertory for some time, my mother ultimately never got the chance to hear it. And because this was Shostakovich’s farewell piece to this world, I feel like it is also a good ending for this CD. Shostakovich made the final revisions to it just four days before his death on August 5, 1975. He never got the chance as a composer to see it being performed for the first time in October of that year, either. In 1919, the year that Hindemith composed the above sonata, the 13-year-old Shostakovich entered that same Saint Petersburg Conservatory where Vieuxtemps had taught earlier. Apart from being a brilliant composer, he was also a talented pianist, to the extent even that after his graduation he had vacillated for some time between a career as a pianist and one as a composer. He was even sent as Soviet representative to the International Chopin Piano Competition, where he won an honorable mention. Nevertheless, his last sonata is completely devoid of expressions that rely on technical piano elaboration. On the contrary, it rather seems to have been Shostakovich’s intent to trim all unnecessary embellishments, as if he wanted to give uninhibited expression to a shout from deep in his heart. Yet in the way the final movement slowly fades out in a peaceful C major, I somehow find a sense of salvation. My mother died in the early morning, Japanese time, of June 9, 2011, but we were not able to be by her side in her last moments, nor could we attend her funeral.
In part as redemption for that, but above all as a token of my gratitude for the immense love my mother gave us, I want to offer her this CD as a farewell present.
Dedicated to my mother Shizuyo Uchino
Yasuko Takahashi, pianist of Duo Agineko
January 2012, Antwerp
Review Gramophone Nov 2016
“It's a relief after that to turn to the odd one out in this collection, a CD of viola sonatas performed by Duo Agineko: viola player Sander Geerts and pianist Yasuko Takahashi. Once again, this is a recital that doubles as a self-portrait. The recording is dedicated to Takahashi's mother, who died in 2011, and everything from the cover artwork to Takahashi's specially written booklet-note is shaped by that personal narrative. The effect is touching, making emotional sense of the musical journey from Vieuxtemps’s icing-sugar Romanticism to the desolation of Shostakovich's late Sonata, with Hindemith's Viola Sonata Op 11 No 4 serving as a surprisingly passionate bridge between the two. These players are unmistakably on the same page, and what lingers here isn't so much their individual qualities - Geerts's mellow tone and tiny, expressive portamentos or the endlessly nuanced shades of black that Takahashi finds in Shostakovich's writing for the left hand - as the way they respond to each other, echoing phrasings, pushing each other forwards and (or so it sounds, anyway) exchanging quick smiles of acknowledgement. A lovely disc, and a wonderful example of what a duo recital can achieve: two players and three composers becoming so much more than the sum of their parts.”