Commended by Vladimir Mendelssohn for his ‘outstanding personality not only as a viola soloist, but also as a chamber musician’, Mircea Belei entered the hall at St. Martin in the-Fields alongside pianist Attila Szekely, a graduate from the Music Academy in Cluj, to rapturous applause – and they began their first piece Kol Nidrei, for viola and piano by Max Bruch.
Following studies in his native city of Târgu Mureș Romania, Attila Szekely received a scholarship to study at the prestigious Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest and – along with several other musical achievements – has been first-prize winner at the ‘Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition’. He opened Kol Nidrei, Aramaic for ‘All Vows’, with a slow, thinly textured piano motif played with precisely controlled legato and apt voicing of the melody notes. The piece, composed in 1881, is styled as an Adagio on two Jewish themes: the first, which also lends the piece its title, is an age-old Hebrew song of atonement while the second is the middle section of the moving ‘O Weep for Those That Wept on Babel’s Stream’ by Lord Byron. Bruch got to know both melodies in Berlin where, in his own words, he ‘had much to do with the children of Israel in the Choral Society’.
Mircea Belei, who in 2012 moved to London and immediately had a trial as Associate Principal Viola with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, followed the piano’s introduction with the first theme on the viola, a sorrowful melody phrased to suggest an ancient cantorial utterance, a ‘sob’ of penitence. Here, Mircea used vibrato expertly to create something deep and mournful, and the piano balanced perfectly with the viola, reverberating around St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The melody appears in various forms throughout the piece, swapping between the two instruments, and the skilled communication between the two performers made for a notably fluid sound.
The piano’s forte octaves abruptly began the middle section in D major which then elided into a fine duet with the viola where its fast, scalic passages were tasteful and well controlled. It wasn’t long, however, before the first melody appeared again in the viola accompanied by fast-moving arpeggios on the piano. An introverted and well-restrained piano solo allowed for beautiful, effective crescendos when the viola interweaved itself back in. The ending died down to a very sparse, chordal piano accompaniment, similar to the opening, with the viola softly meandering its way through the melody over the top.
The second and final piece of the concert was Shostakovich’s last ever work composed in 1975: his Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.147. This piece was dedicated to Fydor Druzhinin, violist of the Beethoven quartet and in a letter written in 1975 the then president of the Soviet Composers Union Boris Tischenko says: “[…] the viola sonata is a supreme affirmation of love and human warmth. Kindness, sincerity, perfection of absolute thought, suspended from the bustle and freedom of apophthegm, are the characteristics of the viola sonata as they are of its author’s character. Without a doubt, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s new composition will make the world a better place”.
Mircea Belei began the first movement, described by the composer as a ‘novella’, perhaps in recognition of its free-flowing three-part form, with quiet pizzicato notes on the viola followed shortly by a reserved twelve-note theme on the piano, spawning atmosphere and tension. Both musicians managed to keep a strict tempo throughout all the changing time signatures whilst still managing to keep the requisite friction and ambiguity.
The scherzo-like second movement recycles the opening music from Shostakovich’s abandoned wartime opera on Gogol’s The Gamblers, a story of card-sharps fooled by their intended victim. This movement begins halfway between a polka and a quick march with a rhythmic piano entry played precisely and rigidly by Attila; the later stages were newly composed. The viola melody sang over the top of this military-style accompaniment with a heroic feel, and the difficult double-stop passages were played by Mircea with prowess and character.
The desolate viola lines from the middle of the second movement are brought back in the opening of the Adagio finale and as the piece unfolds Shostakovich paraphrases the famous opening of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, with its repeated note motif and funereal inflections played skilfully here. One of the most thought-provoking self-quotations happens towards the very end of this movement where the ‘radiance’, as Shostakovich described it, of this transfigured C major, is dedicated to the memory of his recently deceased father. The communication and awareness between Mircea and Attila was outstanding as the beautiful viola melody sang out and pierced the hearts of the audience.
St. Martin-in-the-Fields has hosted concerts in its exquisite platform for 66 years and the Lunchtime Concert Series are free, so with incredible soloists, choirs and ensembles like Mircea Belei and Attila Szekely, it is definitely a venue not to be missed.
This concert featuring Mircea Belei (viola) and Attila Szekely (piano) was part of the ongoing programme of free lunchtime concerts at St.Martin in the Fields. It was supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute, London.