Taught initially by Russia’s first hero of the viola, Vadim Borisovsky, Yuri Bashmet is seen by many today as the greatest living viola player. His activities as a musician have done much to further the reputation of an instrument that continues to hold a less dominant position than the violin, his recordings showing that the viola is a capable and distinctive voice. He has made a number of high-profile appearances throughout his career including a Carnegie Hall recital (joining Emanuel Vardi and William Primrose in an elite group of violists to have performed there in a solo capacity), international charity events in the USA with Elton John and Stevie Wonder, a tribute to Princess Diana in London, and concerts in aid of victims of natural disasters. In addition he is a hard-working pedagogue, having taught at the Moscow Conservatory since completing his own studies there, and establishing its Experimental Viola Faculty to expand the repertoire studied so as to include chamber, operatic and symphonic rôles, as well as the study of historic playing styles. In addition to serving on the juries of viola competitions in Paris and Munich, Bashmet also set up a competition in Moscow under his own name and is President of the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition in the UK.
Known also in the field of conducting Bashmet has worked with many leading orchestras and founded his own ensemble, the Moscow Soloists, with which he appears both as soloist and conductor. Although his performances were confined mostly to the USSR during the first decade of his career, and aside from his commitment to musical activities in Moscow, Bashmet has a worldwide reputation that has been recognised with awards from the governments of the USSR, France, Lithuania, Italy and Russia.
His recordings of celebrated works for the viola—including wonderfully impassioned performances of Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata with Mikhail Muntian (1991) and Walton’s Concerto under André Previn (1994)—are testaments to a refined and utterly reliable technique. Interestingly, Bashmet’s tempi in the Walton are significantly slower than William Primrose’s under the composer’s baton, perhaps illustrating changing performance tastes in recent decades, favouring texture and detail over larger-scale ideas. In these works it is also clear how Bashmet is able to adapt his basically modern, international, style to suit the composer’s idiom: Shostakovich’s Sonata is dark in sonority with a wider vibrato in melodic passages, whilst the Walton evidences a lighter approach.
The rather gloomy and discordant opening movement of Vytautas Barkauskas’s 1981 Viola Concerto (recorded 2008) with its eclectic mixture of sounds, including orchestral portamenti that conjure up the timbre of the ondes martenot and the inclusion of harpsichord in two movements, is delivered with a rich yet ascetic tone. Bashmet’s ever-growing repertory of contemporary works for viola is further represented by Hikaru Hayashi’s Viola Concerto ‘Elegia’ (2007), where he explores an almost exalted beauty, tending towards light, flautando bow-strokes.
From the other chronological extreme of string writing is Marais Suite in D minor (2007) where Bashmet shows great sensitivity and (although making few obvious concessions to period style) a clear sense of Classical phrasing and tonal restraint. The latter is absent from his own arrangement of the Grave movement of Benda’s Viola Concerto in G (2007) which he conceives in a warmly Romantic fashion. Bashmet’s versatility is further indicated by his performance of Igor Raykhelson’s Jazz Suite (2007), where he uses a suitably spare, almost dry sound.
Ultimately, it is Bashmet’s thoughtfulness in interpretation and comprehensive tonal range that define his high status amongst viola players.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)