Fanfare, January/February 2018, Feature Article by Jerry Dubins

A Dynamic Duo—Yuri Bondarev and Gabriele Leporatti

Hindemith Rota Shostakovich
emanomusic & ETERA
The recent arrival of a most interesting CD of works for viola and piano, performed by violist Yuri Bondarev and pianist Gabriele Leporatti, became the incentive for this interview. In checking the Fanfare Archive, I didn’t find any previous entries for either Bondarev or Leporatti, but I was so taken with their album that I wanted to know more. So I decided to begin this interview by asking each one to introduce himself to our readers and tell us something about his background, studies, musical career, and prior recording activities, if any.

Yuri Bondarev: I was raised in a musical family in St. Petersburg. My mother is a piano teacher and my father is first violin in the Rimsky-Korsakov Quartet. My first instrument was actually the piano, but since my mother didn’t have much patience, and my father wanted me to play the violin, I started studying it after a year on the piano. My affection for the viola came much later. At that time, I was living in Berlin and it was shortly before my final exam in violin that I heard a concert of one of the best viola players of our time, Tatjana Masurenko. I found her playing so fascinating that I immediately bought a viola and started to prepare for the entrance exam.

During my study in Leipzig I gathered experience in orchestral playing with the Gewandhaus Orchestra and temporarily with the Vienna Philharmonic. For four years I was member of the Scardanelli Quartet in Hamburg, and I occasionally played with my father’s quartet. In 2009 I debuted with Bartók’s Viola Concerto at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig and at the Sala Verdi in Milan.

After completing my studies in Leipzig, I was hired as a substitute solo viola in the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra and moved to Düsseldorf. Along with my work in the orchestra and as chamber musician, I love to teach as well. In Düsseldorf, besides the State Conservatory there is also a very good music academy, the International Anton Rubinstein Music Academy, where I have been teaching for several years. This is the first private music academy in Germany where you can graduate with a state-approved degree. Regular masterclasses and jury membership in competitions complement my musical life, and the rest of the time I spend with my family and my daughter, who has just learned to walk.

Gabriele Leporatti: I began my musical studies at the age of six with my grandfather, a clarinetist, conductor, and composer. Later I studied piano with Fabio Bidini and Maria Tipo in Italy, and with Joaquín Achúcarro in the U.S. Last season I debuted with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Thomas Søndergard, performing Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto.

Along with my solo career, I love to play chamber music in all kinds of formations. As pianist of the Trio Suleika, I performed at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam in the 2014–15 season, my latest collaboration being with Yuri Bondarev, with whom I made this CD. In 2015, I founded my own recording company, Etera Classics. The first album featured solo works by Schumann (the Fantasie, op. 17, and Morning Songs, op. 133) and Respighi (the Notturno and Sonata). Previous recordings of mine include an all-Brahms CD (the Sonata No. 2, the Variations op. 21/1, and the Ballades op. 10) and a piano four hands album with Fabio Bidini (Schubert’s Fantasy D 940, Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, and Rachmaninoff’s Six Pieces). I teach piano at the Anton Rubinstein International Music Academy in Düsseldorf, where I currently live.

When and where did you and Yuri meet, and how did you decide to make an album together as a duo?

G.L.: We are colleagues at the Anton Rubinstein International Music Academy and that is where we first met. Also being curators of the Academy’s Foundation and involved in the many activities of our school—from competitions to concert series organization—nourished our friendship, and we started to play together. So, after some years we wished to record some of the works we felt most close to.

The album certainly offers an unusual mix of works—sonatas by Hindemith and Shostakovich, a set of Intermezzos by Nino Rota, and a bonus track featuring a transcription of a piece by Rachmaninoff. How did you come up with this program, and how would you describe these works to someone who is not familiar with them?

Y.B.: Since this our first CD, we wanted to record works of special importance to us. Another reason was that the composers—Hindemith, Rota, and Shostakovich—represent three composing three schools of the 20th century, and we thought that having them together in an album would be of interest.
The recording of the Rachmaninoff in the version for viola is a premiere recording, and I made the transcription. We fell immediately in love with the piece, and Gabriele convinced me that it would not be difficult to transcribe the Romance for viola and piano. The original text comes from a famous Russian poet of the so called “Silver Age of Russian Poetry,” Igor Severjanin, and it really is a uniquely beautiful piece. What’s fascinating about Rachmaninoff’s musical setting is that you don’t really need the words or the translation to feel the content of the poem.

Gabriele, would you care to add anything to what Yuri has said?

G.L.: I believe that a CD is always a journey, so to speak, both for whoever records it and for whoever listens to it. We did end this album with a song transcription, but the whole recording really is about the voice, about singing—now the viola, now the piano—and about story telling—life, death, transfiguration. The human condition is here the core of the repertoire, and I think that the listener will be engaged by the variety of it. Interestingly enough, all four composers had something to do directly or indirectly with cinema and film music.

Switching subjects away from the music for a moment, Gabriele, I understand that you’re the man behind the label, Etera, for which you and Yuri recorded this album. Tell me about how and when you started it up. I have so many questions because I wouldn’t even know how to go about establishing such an enterprise. Are partners involved? Is upfront investment money needed? How do you engage artists to record for you? How do you find an engineering team and mastering lab that complements your artistic vision?

G.L.: I had to do a bit of research on the steps required to found a label. The upfront costs are really low and once you find out how, it’s actually pretty simple to carry out. I don’t have associates; I choose where, when, and what to record, and I do the entire editing myself because I believe that is part of the artistic process of making a CD. I can’t imagine someone else editing my work. How could he or she know exactly what I want to hear? It’s somewhat similar to editing a film and, in fact, the whole idea of owning a label is the equivalent of owning a production studio in the movie business. This way you are free to make any choices, without compromises, remaining true to your artistic goal. Pressing the CDs and getting them to the market is then carried out by a hired company, a leader in its field. Currently, I have worldwide digital distribution and physical distribution in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, with more countries coming up.

So, Yuri, let’s jump back to the music. Hindemith, of course, was an accomplished violist who loved the instrument and wrote bountifully for it. In addition to the Sonata for Viola and Piano that you and Gabriele play on your new release, he composed a sonata for viola solo and countless other works that prominently feature the viola in various chamber ensembles. He even wrote three works for viola d’amore. Can you describe the style and form of the sonata on the disc, and how it fits the character of the instrument?

Y.B.: No composer wrote as much for the viola as a solo instrument as Hindemith. The Sonata, op.11/4, is an early work. Hindemith was 24 years old when he wrote it, and it is influenced by Romanticism and Impressionism like no other piece of his. It is one of my most beloved sonatas by Hindemith. Programmatically it has much in common with some of Schumann’s works—magical and enchanting! The three movements—Fantasy, Thema with Variations, and Finale with Variations—are played without break, so that if you don’t know the piece, you can’t say where one movement ends and the next one begins. The variations are incredibly imaginative and technically challenging in their use of the full coloristic possibilities of the viola. Hindemith composed the sonata at a time he was discovering the viola for himself and was still searching for his own musical language and style. It’s a really enchanting piece that could not be missing from our CD.

To the best of my knowledge, Shostakovich did not play the viola, and he certainly didn’t write extensively for it as Hindemith did, but he did compose one fairly large-scale and very important work for the instrument, the Sonata for Viola and Piano, op. 147, which turned out to be his very last composition. Could you answer the same question about the Shostakovich as you did about the Hindemith?

Y.B.: As you mentioned, the sonata is his last piece. Shostakowitch began work on this sonata, which he didn’t live to hear performed, towards the end of April 1975. At that time the composer was 68 years old and terminally ill. The work was written rather quickly in spite of his illness, to which he would succumb during the summer. The work was completed on July 5. On August 4, just five days prior to his death, Shostakovich was still making a final check of the manuscript.
As is the case with other works of Shostakowich, especially those from his last creative phase, quotations from his other compositions, as well as quotations and reminiscences from works by other composers, play an important role in the Viola Sonata. The first movement recalls Berg’s Violin Concerto. The second movement borrows material from Shostakovich’s unfinished opera The Gamblers. It has two cadenzas in the middle and reprises music from the opera at the end. The concluding movement, and the weightiest of the three, bears the inscription in Shostakovich’s hand, “Adagio in memory of a great composer.” Of course, who the “great” compose was that Shostakovich had in mind is no secret, for the movement quotes Beethoven’s famous “Moonlight” Sonata.
It’s no secret that Shostakovich, who suffered much during Stalin’s regime and couldn’t always compose as he would have wanted to, incorporates secret messages in his music. While working on the Viola Sonata, Shostakovich penned an open letter to the musicians of the world in which he wrote, “By building bridges into the future we must take care not to burn the bridges connecting today’s culture to its immortal past.”

I suppose a logical follow-up to the last question would be to ask about your instrument. What viola do you play, and did you experiment with different instruments to bring out the unique atmospheres of these pieces?

Y.B.: I play a viola that was made for me by the wonderful maker Jürgen Manthey in Leipzig. We—my viola and I—have been together a long time, and I’ve looked to no other, because I know I can always rely on her. Another important part, of course, is the bow. It also comes from Saxony and is by a famous German maker, Hans-Karl Schmidt. Without it, the viola would also sound very different, of course.

Don’t worry, Gabriele, I haven’t forgotten about you. Could you speak to the Hindemith and Shostakovich sonatas from the vantage point of the pianist?

G.L.: The Hindemith is a challenging piece where, in order to achieve the desired result, it’s critical to think and play in an orchestral way. The writing is very thick, yet polyphonic, and many times the composer asks for extreme dynamics, even favoring the piano over the viola.
The Shostakovich has other needs, even opposite ones in certain respects. The timelessness and stillness that permeate the piece are the most difficult things to achieve, with very few notes to play. Sometimes you can’t catch a breath for pages!

Nino Rota always seems to remind me of that children’s story, The Little Engine That Could. He huffed and puffed, and put out a lot of steam, meaning that he was extremely prolific, producing a very large catalog of works. Meanwhile, however, along came the diesel engine and no one took Rota’s serious efforts seriously anymore, so he ended up in the locomotive museum. Another way of putting this is that the critics and the academic elites tended to dismiss Rota as a second-rate composer at best for two reasons. (1) He was writing very Romantic-sounding music well into the 1970s, ignoring all of the Modernist isms and movements that came and went throughout the 20th century; and (2) he hedged his bets against success in the concert hall, devoting himself with equal, if not greater, effort to producing scores for the film industry. The latter became his lasting legacy. For a period of over 45 years, from the 1930s until his death in 1979, he composed, according to one source, some 170 film scores, in some years writing as many as 10 of them. Many, too, were for films that received wide critical acclaim and became almost cult films, such as Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 . No fewer than 26 of Rota’s scores, in fact, were composed for Fellini films. But in 1972, Rota really hit pay dirt when he produced the score to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
Forgive me. That’s a longwinded introduction to the just-under nine-minute Intermezzo by Rota the two of you have included on your CD. It was composed in 1945 and, according to the composer’s work list it is an original piece for viola and piano, not a transcription. So, what can you tell me about it?

Y.B.: Rota is a very special composer for me. Everybody knows the music from his movies, but fewer people know that the music is by him, and fewer still know his “classical” works. I find that his “serious” music is really underestimated and far too little played. Since Gabriele and I really love and value his music highly, we wanted to include this wonderful work on our CD. I think that especially in the Intermezzo one can recognize that Rota was a great composer of film music; always when we play the piece, I have the feeling of being able to see the music as well as hearing it.

In wrapping this up, let’s take a moment to talk about recordings. Is this Etera CD a first commercial recording for you, either individually or together as a duo?

G.L.: Yes, this is our first commercial release as a duo.

Are there future recordings in the works?

G.L.: My next recording will be a new solo album, probably out in 2019.

Y.B.: This is my first recording and I think not the last.

Okay, one last question for both of you: What is the one work for your instrument you would most like to record? It doesn’t have to be a duo work for viola and piano. It could be a viola concerto or a viola quintet for Yuri and a solo piano work for Gabriele.

Y.B.: I’m very much enjoying working with Gabriele, and we have lots of ideas for our next CD.

G.L.: It will surely be in my next CD, so stay tuned!

The list of 20th-century viola sonatas is not a long one, but the sonatas by Hindemith and Shostakovich significantly upped the ante for other composers inclined to contribute to the genre. Yet both works, separated by over half a century, come from different phases of their respective composers’ lives, represent different approaches to the instrument, and are of considerably contrasting musical content and styles.
Hindemith was a young composer of only 24 when he wrote his sonata for viola and piano in 1919. For all its learned counterpoint and formal cleverness—explained below—the music itself is immediately accessible to the ear, even without the listener having knowledge of its inner workings. The second movement is a theme and variations based on a folksong. The variations are four in number. The third movement is also a theme and variations within a sonata-allegro structure. The cleverness alluded to above lies in the fact that the theme of the third movement is a derivative of the theme from the second movement, and the three variations that follow are a continuation of the preceding four variations, being numbered V through VII. All of this is put forward in Hindemith’s compact, rather pithy, tongue-in-cheek musical style. At less than three minutes, the first movement, titled Fantasie, is the shortest of the sonata’s three movements, as it unfolds in a Romantically expressive, melodically and harmonically free-flowing style. The rhapsodic feeling of this movement is beautifully captured by Bondarev, who plays with a warm, glowing, rounded tone. He and Leporatti together take full measure of the sonata’s two variations movements that follows in playing that is alternately serious and playful.
Shostakovich, in contrast, was a man who seemed older than his 69 years, beaten down by war, political oppression, and illness, when he wrote his Viola Sonata, his final work, in 1975. Like so much of the composer’s music, the piece is dark, gloomy, and pertinaciously pessimistic, yet peppered with nose-thumbing sarcasm, mockery, and irony. In the closing movement, one of composer’s great Adagios, you could say that Shostakovich wrote his own epitaph. This performance by Bondarev and Leporatti is one of the most moving and heartbreaking I think I’ve ever heard, easily equaling, if not surpassing, a performance of the piece I have by Julian Rachlin and Itamar Golan. In this concluding movement, Bondarev and Leporatti create the feeling of a moment frozen in time. It’s a spellbinding experience to listen to this performance.
Nino Rota’s Intermezzo might just as easily have been titled “Romance.” It’s a lovely, sweetly but not cloyingly melodic reverie for viola and piano that rises to quite a dramatic mid-point climax, before subsiding and returning to its opening refrains. The transcription of Rachmaninoff’s “Daisies,” the third number from the composer’s Six Romances for voice and piano, op. 38, is offered as a bonus track at the end of the CD.
For a first collaboration between two highly talented and musically sensitive artists, Bondarev and Leporatti’s album of viola and piano works is a winner and very highly recommended to anyone who loves the dark timbre of the viola’s voice, especially when it sings as beautifully as it does here in Bondarev’s hands. Leporatti plays with equal poetic beauty, drawing a gorgeous tone from his piano. The superior recorded sound is testament to Leporatti’s painstaking attention and care given to the editing, engineering, and production process.

Jerry Dubins
This article originally appeared in Issue 41:3 (Jan/Feb 2018) of Fanfare Magazine.