The viola and the harp set each other off perfectly. Debussy and Bax added a flute to the mix, but how many composers have explored the possibilities of just the two of them?

Inevitably relying on transcriptions to build much of their programme, harpist Oliver Wass and viola-player Luba Tunnicliffe showed what an effective combination the two instruments can make. Timothy Salter’s transcription of the Prelude from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque made the point elegantly, before the two players took solo spots. Wass played his own versions of two movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. ‘Juliet as a Young Girl’ had pensive moments amid the bright effervescence, while ‘Friar Laurence’ suggested his deep humanity. In Tunnicliffe’s account of three movements from JS Bach’s Cello Suite No 3, the Prelude had a solid sense of movement, the Sarabande had a strong underlying dance impulse, and in the Gigue she brought out the latent folk-music drone effects at a number of points.

Britten himself played the viola in his early years and, in Lachrymae, gave the instrument one of its chamber-music masterpieces. Against the fragile, hesitant, opening, the performance balanced the strenuous and declamatory fourth and fifth variations, and the scurrying seventh, projecting with great clarity details like the change of colour from the viola’s playing on the bridge to normal position.

After the interval, Tunnicliffe switched to violin for Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie, Op 124. This was notable particularly for the way the capricious, Spanish-sounding episode grew in incisiveness, as well as the players’ broader feel for the composer’s classical poise and clarity. It pointed the way towards Wass’s rhythmic drive in the Spanish dance from Falla’s opera La Vida Breve. Tchaikovsky’s Chanson Triste, from his Twelve Piano Pieces, Op 40, and ‘Melodie’ from Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher inevitably took on a darker colouring on the viola.

Finally, a different Bax piece from the one I mentioned earlier, his Fantasy Sonata of 1927. The players responded well to the first movement’s dancing restlessness, and the dark intensity of the finale. A pity, then, that the work’s structure was seriously unbalanced by an apparently last-minute decision to leave out the slow third movement (designed to follow on from the previous one without a break), which left an uncomfortable feeling of being short-changed.

© Mike Wheeler, 2017

  • Prokoviev: Romeo and Juliet
  • Bach: Cello Suite No 5 for viola (selections from)
  • De Falla: Spanish Dance No 1 (from La Vida Breve) for Harp
  • Britten: Saint-Saëns Lachrymae for Viola and Harp, Op 48
  • Tchaikovsky: Fantasie, Op 124
  • Bax: Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher, Op 42, Chanson Triste

Kindly supported by the Countess of Munster Musical Trust

Congrats to Oliver Wass, Luba Tunnicliffe & Henry Roberts (as #Pelleas Ensemble): 1st Prize in the British Harp Chamber Music Comp 2015!
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