The viola and the cello have the same tuning, an octave apart, but the transfer of one instrument’s music to the other is not without challenges. French violist Antoine Tamestit played both borrowed music and a modern masterwork in a Sunday evening recital presented by Washington Performing Arts. The event marked his return to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater more than a decade after his debut there.
Tamestit played two of the three solo cello suites of Bach he has recorded on the viola for the Naïve label. At times one misses the gravitas of the lower instrument, on the low notes of the C and G preludes, for example, or the folksy drone section of the C suite’s Gigue. On the other hand, the cello generally lumbers a bit in rapid passages, where Tamestit could be sprightlier on the narrower spread of strings. An excess of soupy rubato undermined the dancelike propulsion of some of the movements, especially in the sarabande in G.
Ligeti’s “Sonata for Solo Viola” showcased a different set of skills, from microtonal bends and stratospheric harmonics in the first movement, played entirely on the lowest string, to triple- and quadruple-stops, adroitly smoothed out. At the end of fourth movement, Tamestit ripped the mute off the instrument and threw it aside, playing that moment, indicated in the score, for laughs as he had done with the “silenzio assoluto” at the end of the second movement. The artificial harmonics in the fifth movement, played on non-open strings and largely in parallel seconds, were otherworldly.
As a parallel to the “Chaconne chromatique” that ends the Ligeti, Tamestit concluded with Bach’s second violin partita. Transposed down a fifth from where Bach wrote it for violin, the piece has even more weight and solemnity on the viola, especially the gorgeous final chaconne. An encore of the fourth movement from Hindemith’s solo viola sonata (Op. 25/1) buzzed with energy.