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Experimental feature

Violists are the butt of so many musicians’ jokes that it comes as a shock to be confronted by Lawrence Power. He understands all the traditional qualities of the viola – its softness and sadness as well as its darkness – but also treats it as a human voice, capable of turns of phrase that are astonishing in their acuity and brilliance. Although he is a virtuoso, he never uses his instrument as a vehicle for profiling himself. Instead he draws you in imperceptibly, letting his personality speak through the music. Power is a latter-day Orpheus, an expression of music’s power to disarm, encourage, soothe and serenade.

So it was no surprise to find a full house awaiting his latest recital – an accolade given in recent times only to two other violists, Yuri Bashmet and Tabea Zimmermann. He began with Vieuxtemps’ Sonata in B, a substantial piece from the mid-Romantic era that shows off the viola’s range without drawing attention to the fact. Power uncovered its period eloquence, partly through a judicious use of portamento but largely in the way he allowed the music to breathe.

And it was with a barely perceptible breath of sound that he set the grief-laden mood for Sibelius’s Malinconia (originally for cello but arranged for viola by Power), which he developed, seamlessly and with respect for the music’s fragile beauty, into a quasi-orchestral range of tones and expressions.

Then came arrangements of seven Shostakovich piano preludes, Power capturing their ambiguous tone to a T, followed after the interval by Arthur Benjamin’s large, late romantic Sonata – a fascinating piece embracing the nervy unwieldiness of a Mahler symphony, complete with edgy waltz and the dark energy of a Walton concerto. With a piano part to match the viola in colour and range Simon Crawford-Philips was much the equal partner, and together they romped home with York Bowen’s Phantasy, a wonderfully extrovert English divertissement.

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