Isabel Villanueva & Calio Alonso
Brahms, Schubert, Wagner, de Falla/Kochanski

Aula der Universität, Zurich, 2023-11-24

4.0-star rating

2023-12-19 — Original posting

Spanischer Besuch in der Aula der Universität Zürich — Zusammenfassung

Die spanische Bratschistin Isabel Villanueva (*1988) hatte ihren zweiten Auftritt bei “Musik an ETHZ und UZH”. Das erste Mal spielte sie vor 6 Jahren in der Semper-Aula der ETH Zürich, diesmal in der Aula der Universität, zusammen mit dem spanischen Pianisten Calio Alonso (*1985). Aus Anlass des 190. Geburtstages von Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) eröffneten die beiden das Programm mit drei Transkriptionen von Liedern dieses Komponisten (op.105/1, op.43/2 und op.43/1). Darauf folgte, die gewichtige, anspruchsvolle, bekannte und zugleich oft verkannte Arpeggione-Sonate in a-moll, D.821 von Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828).

Die zweite Hälfte des Programms war ganz Lied-Transkriptionen gewidmet: als erstes die Fünf Wesendonck-Lieder, WWV 91 von Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883). Es folgten die Siete canciones populares españolas von Manuel de Falla (1876 – 1946), in der Bearbeitung des polnischen Komponisten und Geigers Paul Kochanski (1887 – 1934), der sechs der Canciones als Suite populaire Espagnole veröffentlichte. Die 6 Volksmelodien erklangen allerdings in der originalen Reihenfolge von Manuel de Falla. Die Zugabe war wieder ein Lied von Johannes Brahms—das etwas morbide op.105/2.

Table of Contents


Venue, Date & TimeAula der Universität, Zurich, 2023-11-24 19:30h
Series / TitleMusik an ETHZ und UZH — Duo Recital Isabel Villanueva & Calio Alonso
OrganizerMusical Discovery
PatronageEmbajada del Reino de España en Berna (Spanish Royal Embassy in Bern)
Related eventsRecitals in the Main Convention Hall at Zurich University
Previous Concerts in the Series “Musik an der ETH und UZH

The Artists

Isabel Villanueva, Viola

My first (and so far only) encounter with the violist Isabel Villanueva (*1988) dates back to 2017-11-21, when she gave a recital in Zurich, together with the French pianist François Dumont (*1985, see also Wikipedia). This also was in the context of Musik an ETHZ und UZH, but in the Semper-Aula of the ETH (Federal Institute of Technology). For details see my review from that recital. The review also includes biographic information on the artist.

Isabel Villanueva has since very actively pursued her career as international soloist and teacher. She not only is very active on social media, but she also was awarded a professorship at the Royal College of Music in London. She is also offering master classes on her instrument. Isabel Villanueva has served as musical ambassador to her home country, Spain (and she maintains firm ties to that country).

As already in 2017, Isabel Villanueva performed on a precious historic instrument—a viola built 1670 in Turin, by the luthier Enrico Catenar (c.1620 – 1701).

Calio Alonso, Piano

In this recital, Isabel Villanueva’s duo partner was the Spanish pianist and cultural impresario Calio Alonso (*1985), performing at the University’s mid-size grand piano, a Steinway model B-211. Calio Alonso started his musical education in Spain, at the Conservatori Superior de Música del Liceu (Conservatorio Superior de Música del Liceo) in Barcelona (Spain). He then continued his studies at the Hochschule für Musik “Franz Liszt” in Weimar (Germany), specializing in vocal accompaniment. His curriculum also lists a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Granada and a master’s degree in Business Management of Cultural Institutions and Industries from the University of Barcelona.

Calio Alonso has developed a wide range of musical activities as soloist, chamber musician, Lied accompanist, working with notable artists, both in Europe as well as Latin America. He has worked as vocal coach at the Hochschule für Musik “Franz Liszt” in Weimar, at the Conservatorio profesional de música “Ángel Barrios” of Granada, as well as at the University of Costa Rica. He now splits his time and activities between Spain (for Europe) and Costa Rica (for Latin America), but has also lived in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria.


Setting, etc.

There were around 100 people in the audience—among them a fair number of people from the concert’s sponsor, the Spanish Embassy in Bern.

Concert & Review

The printed program announcement called for a work by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856): Romance No.1 (Nicht schnell, i.e., not fast) from Three Romances for Oboe and Piano, op.94, in a transcription for viola and piano. However, Calio Alonso opened the concert with the announcement that instead, they would rather perform three songs by Johannes Brahms, given that this year marks Brahms’ 190th anniversary.

Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms

Brahms: 3 Songs from 5 Lieder, op.105 and from 4 Gesänge, op.43

Composer & Works

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed many orchestral and piano works, as well as chamber music. However, a major portion of his oeuvre consists of vocal works—Lieder, duets, and choral works. The artists started with the first one, “Wie Melodien zieht es mir leise durch den Sinn” (“Like melodies it gently passes my mind) from Brahms’ late Fünf Lieder (5 songs), op.105, composed between 1886 and 1888. The song is on a poem by Klaus Groth (1819 – 1899).

This was followed by the first two of “4 Gesänge” (4 Songs), op.43, in inverted sequence:

  1. Die Mainacht (“The May Night”)
    on a poem by Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty (1748 – 1776)
  2. Von ewiger Liebe (“Of Eternal Love”)
    on a poem by Josef Wenzig (1807– 1876)

The 4 Songs of op.43 were published 1868.

The Performance

Wie Melodien zieht es mir leise durch den Sinn, op.105/1

Brahms wrote these late Lieder “for a lower voice with accompaniment of the pianoforte”, and I don’t think there is any instrument that comes closer to an alto voice than the viola. And indeed: it was striking how Isabel Villanueva’s Catenar viola captured the attention from the first tone, with its beautiful, characterful, and characteristic, mellow and colorful timbre. It felt as if Brahms had written this for viola, indeed. Sure, the words were absent—but they were not missed! To the contrary: there was no “distraction” from the text, no need to focus on understanding the poem, let alone contemplate its message. Rather the attention rested solely on the beauty of Brahms’ melody.

Calio Alonso wrapped the cantilena line with Brahms’ wide-spanning broken chord figures, with harmonious, well-rounded sonority—so typical of the composer’s late piano works. My only, minor criticism: for the annotation “p, sempre dolce“, the piano seemed a little too dominant, tilting the balance towards the accompaniment. The instrument wasn’t even a full-size concert grand, but the parquet floor and the acoustics of the venue in general may have contributed to this by favoring the piano.

Intuitively, one might ask: couldn’t the viola play a little louder? But it couldn’t—as this would have altered the characteristics of the instrument. I felt (and Isabel Villanueva confirmed this when I talked to her after the concert) that the strength of this instrument is not in its volume, but in the richness of its colors. Forcing the volume might adversely affect (“crush”) its sonority. Overall, though, Brahms’ op.105/1 was a beautiful, very atmospheric entry into the concert program!

Die Mainacht, op.43/2

Different from the first piece, the second Lied was not just reflective, but a veritable Märchenerzählung (fairy tale): a highly atmospheric, solemn, calm first part (E♭ major) that soon changes into a more earnest tone. The short middle part in B major is not a climax but appeared to open a window into another world—a moment of hope, of confidence. The actual climax (f in the piano) felt like a short, dramatic outbreak, where the mood seemed to turn into melancholy, if not sadness, collapsing into resignation. Soon, though, reconciliation came to the rescue, and in the second part, the song culminates in an atmosphere of serenity and fulfillment, almost bursting of joy, then ending in peace and consolation.

Von ewiger Liebe, op.43/1

In the second Lied (op.43/2), the balance was less of an issue, as Brahms kept the melody line more separated from the piano accompaniment. Here, though, the piano again tended to dominate, with its more full-fingered textures, especially in the rather dramatic, earnest atmosphere, culminating in an intense climax. The second part corrected this again, with its warm, gentle atmosphere, building up from pp to an enthusiastic climax, and a joyful, bright ending.

Apart from a certain tendency to dominate, Calio Alonso’s piano accompaniment was outstanding, both in the lyrical and the rhapsodic aspects of Brahms composition. The tuning of the instrument was excellent, as was its sonority. And the retrograde order of the songs seamlessly led over to Schubert’s sonata.

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Franz Schubert, 1846, 3D Portrait
Franz Schubert, 1846

Schubert: Sonata for Viola & Piano in A minor, D.821, “Arpeggione”

Composer & Work

I barely need to introduce the Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano (D.821), the so-called “Arpeggione Sonata” by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). The work (composed 1824 in Vienna) is well-known, and I have written about performances in four concert reviews—all with cello and piano, though. For simplicity, let me just quote from my description in the last of these earlier concert reviews:

The Arpeggione is a 6-string instrument that was held (and tuned) like a guitar. It must have been rather impractical to play. Schubert’s sonata is one of the few compositions for this unusual instrument which quickly disappeared, soon after its invention (and for good reasons, it seems!). Only very few of these instruments are still around. One can now hear this in performances on either a cello or a viola. As both these instruments have just four strings only, tuned in fifths (rather than the guitar-like tuning in fourths and thirds on the Arpeggione), this piece is rather tricky to play (contrary to how it sounds!). The Sonata has three movements:

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Adagio
  3. Allegretto

The Performance

Schubert’s “Arpeggione Sonata” is very (exceedingly?) popular—but just as much demanding, challenging, both musically and technically. One typically hears this performed on a cello, although from the tonal range, the viola would seem to be the much better substitute for the hardly playable (and now virtually impossible to access) original instrument, the Arpeggione. However, …

I do maintain that the above is true. However, the modern grand piano and its relation to the melody instrument may put this in question. A cello with its bigger sound might indeed better cope with the volume, the sonority of even a mid-size Steinway grand. Still, I do favor the viola for this sonata. However, to me, this really calls for a historic piano (fortepiano) from the first half of the 19th century, offering lighter, brighter sound, extra colors. This would be the ideal match for a viola, particularly an instrument such as Isabel Villanueva’s Catenar viola with its subtle, differentiated sonority. Here it goes…

I. Allegro moderato

Already the opening main theme on the piano was barely pp, as Schubert requested, and when the viola joined in with that theme, mf, the piano, albeit p, pushed the viola into the background. That piano dominance persisted throughout the movement. It was most prominent, degrading the viola part to a mere, distant echo. In the second theme, where the two instruments exchange bars of repeated semiquaver motifs. Both are meant to be pp, but relative to the viola, the piano felt at least f, degrading the viola part to a mere, distant echo. Too bad for Isabel Villanueva’s differentiated, expressive playing!

The pizzicati at the end of the exposition were not exactly synchronous, in both passes. However, this may have been intentional, as the last fz chord on the piano would otherwise have covered the pizz completely. Then, however, the development part begins with six p bars on the piano, the main theme in octaves in the right hand. And here, the pizzicato accompaniment on the viola (also p) was hardly audible at all.

All that said, I don’t mean just to “beat up” Calio Alonso here: the Steinway B-211 in this venue is a given, as well as the acoustics. Also, Schubert’s piano part often doesn’t make it easy to play p or pp. The only safe / proper remedy would be a period instrument. And I should add that in the high descant, the viola never had problems making itself heard.

The one aspect of the interpretation that I did not understand is the sudden switch to a markedly slower pace for the coda: this is neither marked in the score, nor did it seem to add any benefit / value?

II. Adagio

One of Schubert’s most beautiful melodies—and even a (seemingly) endless one: serene, so peaceful, so full of infinite joy around the climax: atmospheric, soothing!

Here, the lyrical piano part always left enough “room” for the viola voice. The latter was frequently moving in the upper descant, which of course also helped.

III. Allegretto

Unfortunately, the balance issues returned with the last movement, a Rondo. Undeniably, in Calio Alonso’s hands, the Steinway grand played out its beautiful, well-rounded, and harmonious sonority. However, already in the principal theme, the theme in the viola voice was in danger of drowning in the accompaniment. The D minor couplet with its agile (if not virtuosic) semiquaver figures on the viola suffered much more from the balance issues. As stated above, in prats the instrument, and maybe the acoustics are to blame—but still, it felt as if the piano inappropriately meant to take over the lead role.

The central, long A major segment appeared to lose some momentum in its first part, up to the double bar. The artists recovered the momentum in the repeat segment, maybe at the expense of some slight coordination issues. The following pizzicato section, as well as the again virtuosic A minor part desperately called for a more discreet accompaniment, i.e., a fortepiano!

Some may belittle this movement as “pleasant”. I think it is much more than that—and beautiful music, above and beyond all. And it comes with its challenges, in virtuosity, as well as (obviously) in the need to maintain balance. It is not without reason that one can also hear this piece performed with other instruments, such as guitar or a harp in lieu of a piano, or with a wind instrument in lieu of a viola or violoncello.

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner

Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder, WWV 91

Composer & Work

In 1849, Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) had to flee Saxony after the May Uprising in Dresden. For some time, he settled in Zurich, in the house of Mathilde Wesendonck (1828 – 1902) and her husband. There are strong indications that Wagner had an affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, who was a poet and author. 1857 / 1858, while he was working on his opera Tristan und Isolde, WWV 90, Wagner composed five songs on poems by Mathilde Wesendonck: the Wesendonck Lieder (Five Poems for a Female Voice), WWV 91:

  1. Der Engel (“Angels’ Mission”)
  2. Stehe still! (“Stay thy Toil!”)
  3. Im Treibhaus (“In a Greenhouse”) – Studie zu Tristan und Isolde
  4. Schmerzen (“The Bliss of Sorrow”)
  5. Träume (“Dreams”) – Studie zu Tristan und Isolde

Two of the songs are labeled “studies for Tristan und Isolde“. Here, Wagner used ideas that later became incorporated in the opera. The Wikipedia article states that the last one, Träume, features the roots of the love duet in Act II. Musical material in the third one, Im Treibhaus, ended up as component of the prelude to Act III.

The Performance

I. Der Engel / Angels’ Mission

Wagner explicitly labeled the songs III and V as “Tristan studies”. However, all these songs emerged while he was working on the opera. Therefore, it is no surprise that they share aspects of atmosphere, motifs / melodies, harmonic turns, etc., with the stage work. Here, Isabel Villanueva’s playing almost instantly made me think of the role of Brangäne (Isolde’s maid), talking to Isolde. It almost felt like a photo-realistic reproduction of an opera singer’s voice.

And then, there are these descending quaver lines (… in Sorgen schmachtet vor der Welt verborgen and verbluten, und vergehn in Tränenfluten, i.e., “in sorrow weeps its grief anew each morrow” and “lies bleeding, with its burning tears but pleading“) which felt like direct quotes from the opera. Moreover, the atmosphere in the entire song reminds of scenes from the opera, especially in the emotionally strong moments. That’s again no surprise, considering how intertwined in Wagner’s mind the opera and his own emotional state were. And the latter was of course also reflected in Mathilde Wesendonck’s poems.

II. Stehe still! / Stay thy Toil!

In the first part, the piano naturally dominated with its dramatic semiquaver figures. The viola retained its acoustic presence, trying to convey its state of mind—driven, urging, begging. Compared to a real Lied, the viola can’t quite match the expressive, dramatic potential of a (female) voice. That changed in the middle part with the quaver triplets in the accompaniment: a reflective / expressive recitative. Here, Isabel Villanueva again took the audience onto the opera stage (more in the atmosphere than in quotes / direct anticipations).

III. Im Treibhaus / In a Greenhouse (Tristan study)

In the absence of the song text / poem, this predominantly felt like a testbed for ideas towards the opera, more than an independent, self-contained composition. A monolog? A momentarily dramatic dialog? There is a dramatic development, but without the poem, the listener is left in uncertainty about the “action”. Still, the interpretation was atmospheric, with (often) a sense of lassitude, uncertainty. As for the performance: I didn’t see the reason why in the ascending figure in bars 3/4 (and at least one equivalent instance close to the end) the sustain pedal was kept down?

IV. Schmerzen / The Bliss of Sorrow

The first three songs often felt like open-ended excerpts from an opera, focusing on expressive / emotional development, rather than using a thematic structure. This, however, is the most compact of the five pieces: as (transcription of) a song, this felt like the strongest one, too, with a simpler, more thematic structure. An expressive outcry / exclamation / lament—even without the text!

V. Träume / Dreams (Tristan study)

This last song (transcription) clearly seemed the strongest among the five—both as composition, as well as in the interpretation. Expressive, highly atmospheric, and resembling an opera scene: there are the gradual emotional changes / developments, the progressive mood swings that are so typical of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. True: in the opera, Wagner masterfully manages to extend these over a dialog of 10 – 15 minutes. However, in a kind of time-lapse excerpt, one could sense Wagner’s mastery here: fascinating!

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Paul Kochanski (public domain)
Paul Kochanski
Manuel de Falla
Manuel de Falla

de Falla / Kochanski: Suite populaire Espagnole

Composer & Work

Around 1914 / 1915, the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876 – 1946) wrote his Siete canciones populares españolas (“Seven Spanish Folksongs”). These became some of Manuel de Falla’s most popular and most-arranged compositions:

  1. El Paño moruno
  2. Seguidilla murciana
  3. Asturiana
  4. Jota
  5. Nana
  6. Canción
  7. Polo

The songs incorporate folk melodies / themes from very diverse regions in Spain—e.g.: II (Seguidilla) from Murcia, III (Asturiana) from Asturias; IV (Jota) from Aragón. Isabel Villanueva and Calio Alonso performed the arrangement for violin and piano by the Polish violinist, composer and arranger Paul Kochanski (Paweł Kochański, 1887 – 1934). This arrangement from 1925 runs under the title “Suite populaire Espagnole“. It omits Manual de Falla’s song No.2, Seguidilla murciana, and the sequence of the remaining pieces changed—with Asturiana and Jota at the end:

  • (I) El Paño moruno (Le drap mauresque)
  • (V) Nana (Berceuse)
  • (VI) Canción (Chanson)
  • (VII) Polo
  • (III) Asturiana (Asturienne)
  • (IV) Jota

Here, the artists reverted the order to de Falla’s original sequence—though still leaving out the Seguidilla murciana.

The Performance

With the last set of transcriptions, the artists moved into their “home turf”. Even though it uses styles / songs from vastly different regions of Spain, it’s their own folk music, after all!

I. El Paño moruno

Fascinating! In the introduction and subsequent, piano-only segments, Kochanski’s transcription enriches the piano introduction and subsequent piano-only segments with syncopated flageolets on the string instrument, interspersed with pizzicato segments. Not just this, but also the “vocal” parts were enthralling, very rhythmic on both parts, and with a strong folk dance feeling.

III. Asturiana

Excellent, beautiful and highly atmospheric: suspense and tension, and (to me) strongly evoking a scenery in the glowing heat of the mid-day sun.

IV. Jota

Another enthralling dance piece, the strongly rhythmic piano introduction (Allegro vivo) again enriched with pizzicato: often chordal syncopes. This instantly evoked the sound of castanets, the rhythmic clapping of hands, etc.

The subsequent Poco meno vivo segment: a folk song, intense and expressive, melancholic, longing, and a melody that closely follows the rhythm of the Spanish language. In the center: another, very virtuosic dance segment.

V. Nana

“The hour of the viola”! Here now, Calio Alonso kept the piano accompaniment entirely in the backgound (or underground, rather)—a calm, resting, very slowly swaying foundation, ppp almost throughout. Above that, Isabel Villanueva could play out the expressive, warm, characterful voice of her instrument in the Berceuse, “swaying the cradle”, soothing, appeasing, reassuring—making sure the child’s sleep is not disturbed… beautiful!

VI. Canción

A song in three verses: light, joy- and playful the first one, the next one with rhythmic flageolets on the viola, the last one festive, almost exuberant. And all three verses fascinating in the rhythmic complementarity of the two instruments.

VII. Polo

A wild, virtuosic dance on the piano, which dominates this short piece with its abrupt ending—not the fault of the pianist: his part can’t possibly be played softly. But also here, the viola showed the typical, undeniably Spanish idiom.

I can understand that the artists wanted to return to de Falla’s original song sequence. But I also understand why Kochanski wanted to put the Jota at the end!

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Encore — Brahms: No.2, “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” from 5 Lieder, op.105

For the encore, the artists returned to Brahms’ Fünf Lieder, op.105. They selected the well-known second one, Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer (Ever gentler is my slumber), op.105/2, on a poem by Hermann Ritter von Lingg (1820 – 1905).

The Performance

An atmospheric performance! And among the four Brahms songs in this concert, this was the most harmonious in terms of instrumental balance.

I can understand the idea of ending the recital with a reflective moment. A sort of good-night song, perhaps? The switch from Manuel de Falla’s folk songs to Brahms is certainly an option. The Lied op.105/2, though, seemed a tad too earnest, too heavy in its thoughts & reflection, even morbid, the transition like a (somewhat) harsh break in mood and atmosphere…


The author would like to express his gratitude to the organizer, Nina Orotchko / Musical Discovery, for the free entry to this concert.

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