Soviet artist Bashmet makes whole new instrument out of the viola

There was a long moment of stunned silence, then a spontaneous standing ovation for Soviet master musician Yuri Bashmet, who had just completed the most extraordinary viola recital any of the Jordan Hall concertgoers would be likely to experience in a lifetime. During this United States debut program at the New England Conservatory, a preview event connected with the ``Making Music Together'' festival of Soviet music, Mr. Bashmet demonstrated that he had made a new instrument out of the viola, one that will sing tunes and probe depths not previously encountered. His technique is flawless, allowing the listener to focus on the music alone. His tone, as pure as it is sweet, is of striking lyricism and snared the audience with its beauty.

Bashmet, born in the Ukrainian town of Lvov, took up music at the age of 8 and went to Moscow in 1971. He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1976, having already won international competitions in Munich and Budapest.

He initially took up the viola, he said in a post-concert interview, an impish grin spreading across his face, because it ``took less time than the violin,'' allowing him to play pop music on the guitar. The viola, he added, is also the string instrument most suited to expounding the ``philosophical ideas'' behind 20th-century works and to penetrating the essence of tragic music.

The soft silkiness of Bashmet's tone defies description. His bow appears to float over - not touch - the strings, making for a sound of such polished softness that it seems to be ethereal, not physically produced.

This quality made for a vivid account of the ``Suite in D minor,'' by Marin Marais, one that danced with light, but also exposed a multitude of softer colors. The work sparkled with a gentle humor, but underneath the surface, each successive bar brought new suggestiveness. Marais is being increasingly performed in the US, but Bashmet moved far beyond the dryness with which it is too often done.

Schubert's ``Arpeggione Sonata'' is normally played on a cello, but Bashmet was strategically well placed with his viola, producing effects that reflected both the richness of the cello and the sweetness of the violin. His oxymoronic account, full of variety and nuance, transcended the boundary between melancholia and joy, singing exuberantly while reflecting moodily at the same time.

The Adagio, gliding swanlike across the imagination, had a special sense of heightened pathos to it; the concluding Allegretto was spiritually uplifting, bringing everyone to the intermission in a condition of complete elation.

For the concluding work on the official program, Shostakovich's ``Sonata for Viola and Piano,'' Op. 147, Bashmet's playing was gripping, disturbing, and detached from reality. His penetrating quick-fire pizzicato seemed to have no anchor on this planet, while legato passages were surreal and suspense-filled.

It was a display of complete concentration, its effect accented by the absolute silence of the spellbound audience. Displays of brilliant pyrotechnics pointed away from themselves and into an inner world of despair, leaving one wondering at the work's conclusion about the mental state of a composer capable of writing such music.

Four encores followed in quick succession. The last one - a Marais dance - was winningly effervescent and left a smile on the face of every inwardly refreshed listener.

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