Last evening's program by a fine violist, Paul Doktor, and a muddy pianist, Yaltah Menuhin (fille), offered Brahma, Debussy, and Kabalevsky, all for the price of Hindemith. Hindemith's Sonata No. 1 for viola (1920) is what is known in scholarly circles as a review of the literature. It starts with annotated Schubert and proceeds to Brahms, citing from impressionistic Debussy as needed. An extensive quote of the born motive in Brahms' Fourth Symphony provides the theme for a set of variations, wherein Hindemith invokes the style of Kabalevsky's 24 Easy Pieces for Children; and paraphrases one of Bach's chorales. What a bibliography! In this compilation, Hindemith acts as a member of the "wrong-note school" of composing: you simply take a beautiful theme, insert a few wrong notes, and arrive at modern music. (It's too bad this sonata was chosen, because Hindemith has written some fine viola music.)
The whole program was, in fact, abnormally well endowed with uninspired music. Beethoven's Thirty-two Variations in C Minor, Opus 11, provided Miss Menuhin's solo of the evening; apparently both he and she worked the piece out as a homework assignment. It is, of course, possible that Beethoven intended this as a display of technique, a pianist's tour de force, but in Miss Menuhin's wanderings, the force got lost in the tour. The melody, what there was of it, never managed to crawl out of the piano, since the pedal had a strangle hold on it for the whole-piece. The passage clearly intended to display technique came off as desultory peregrinations, and having the top of the piano down muted what little attempt there was at dynamic variety. Miss Menuhin couldn't play loudly enough. Beethoven concocted this mess of variations out of the simplest possible raw materials, part of an ascending scale; when played with a total lack of lustre, such Beethoven gets tiresome.
Happily less pretentious, and much more satisfying, Walter Piston's Interlude came when just that was needed. Not startling, not astounding, not even particularly original; but pleasant to hear, the screne little piece luxuriates in the tone of the viola. Doktor's relaxed sounds flowed, and well.
Two pieces, the first and the last, saved the program. One of them, Schubert's Sonata Per Arpeggione (1824), actually transcribes for viola a work for an extinct instrument. A Viennese violin maker invented the six-stringed arpeggione in 1823 and for some reason Schubert wrote a masterpiece for it. Transcribed, the sonata is one of the mainstays of the viola repertoire. And Doktor, though he chose a questionable tempo to begin with, modulated it with good, sensitive rubatos where needed. Perhaps because he was just not warmed up, some of the technical display in the later movements came out more forced than forceful. Still the Schubert was the most impressive piece on the program.
The concluding Sonata No. II in E flat major (Op. 120, No. II) by Brahms got the finest performance of the evening, and nearly deserved it. Though Doktor occasionally had problems with undesirable harmonics, in the lower register he coaxed forth the best rich tone of the viola. Under his consistently thoughtful phrasing, the music breathed; it ranged vigorously over a continuum of delicacy and strength. Beneath it all, the piano dully bungled along: too much pedal again, sloppy arpeggios, no subtlety in dynamics. But Brahms surmounted Miss Menuhin's limitations.
Though Doktor deserved his three encores, the Diabelli, Beethoven, and Tartini crept along the same low road as most of the rest of the program. It was a bad night for Beethoven fans: his contredanses (numbers 1 and 5) were pleasant, but banal.
The repertoire of viola music is in a sad state; witness the fact that the two best pieces on the program were transcriptions (Brahms originally wrote his sonata for clarinet). Doktor demonstrated, nicely the unique tonal powers of the viola: all that lack now are more good opportunities to exploit them.