Isabel Villanueva & François Dumont
Dowland / Britten / Brahms / Franck

Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2017-11-21

4-star rating

2017-11-24 — Original posting
2022-10-23 — Minor amendment


Introduction — The Artists

This was one of the last concerts in the venerable Semper-Aula at the ETH in Zurich this year. Actually: for a while, as that venue is undergoing restoration / renovation next year. The renovation also is the reason why this season of “Musik an der ETH” offers fewer concerts than usual. That was reason enough to seize the opportunity for a concert in a both intimate and very atmospheric setting! On top of that, this was an opportunity to meet two young artists that I was curious to hear in a live performance. Both names were already familiar to me. I heard both in online video recordings—only sporadically, though. I would usually do “ladies first”. However, let me follow chronology, for once (sorry, Isabel!):

François Dumont, Piano

The first time I heard about François Dumont was during the International Chopin Competition 2010 in Warsaw, in which he ranked fifth in a field of very strong contenders that year. I viewed many of the performances in that competition online, because I was arduously following Yulianna Avdeeva, the 2010 winner, whom I had encountered in two private recitals in 2008 and 2010. I may have been slightly biased back then (and I may still be), but in my eyes, and also in the judgement of the jury, Yulianna was the clear winner.

However, as stated, the field of contenders was very strong. François Dumont certainly deserved a ranking among the top five. His decision of playing the third rather than the second sonata (by Chopin), as everybody else, may have cost him a ranking or two (in a way, he shared this fate with Hélène Tysman who ranked 10th and may have lost a ranking or two because she was the only one playing the piano concerto op.21, rather than op.11, as everybody else, which placed her in an outsider opposition). The “exclusive choices” may have been coincidences in both cases. They have the potential of giving the “benefit of exclusivity”, but also the (maybe bigger) potential of leading to the “outsider’s uphill battle”.

In any case, I talked to François after the concert, and I was glad to see that he feels happy with his ranking in 2010. He has been successful at several other competitions prior to the one in 2010, but has since stopped “attending the competition circus”:


François Dumont (*1985, see also Wikipedia for additional information) grep up in Lyon. He started learning the piano at age 5, entered the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris. In his career so far, he has worked with mentors such as Murray Perahia (*1947), Menahem Pressler (*1923), Dmitri Bashkirov (1931 – 2021), Leon Fleisher (1928 – 2020), William Grant Naboré (*1941), Paul Badura-Skoda (1927 – 2019), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (*1957), Stanislav Ioudenitch (*1971), Andreas Staier (*1955), and Fou Ts’ong (1934 – 2020). With these “names in his backpack” (and his rankings at competitions), he has been able to start a successful career, both as recording artist (see the artist’s Web site), as well as on the podium, with solo recitals, concerto performances, and—as seen here—as chamber musician.

For about 12 years now, François Dumont is performing as a member of the Trio Elégiaque, with Philippe Aïche (1962 – 2022), violin, and Virginie Constant, cello.

His discography so far focuses on solo recordings (including Mozart’s complete piano sonatas and the complete piano music by Maurice Ravel), and more recently on chamber music (including Beethoven’s complete piano trios with the Trio Elégiaque).

In this concert, François Dumont played a Steinway D-274 concert grand in excellent condition (and excellent tuning).

Isabel Villanueva, viola

My online encounters with Isabel Villanueva are far more recent—essentially an indirect Facebook connection. This goes back to summer 2015, when I met and started to support Oxana Shevchenko (see elsewhere in my blog). Oxana Shevchenko knows Isabel Villanueva from her studies in London and/or Switzerland. She also has been Isabel Villanueva’s duo partner in various concerts, such as in Switzerland and in Spain. I have since watched a number of her videos, so I had an idea about her playing prior to this concert.


Isabel Villanueva (*1988, see also Wikipedia for additional information) grew up in Pamplona. At age 5, she first wanted to study guitar. At age 9, she wanted to enter the Pamplona Conservatory, but due to lack of teaching capacity, she received the offer to learn any other instrument for year, then returning to the guitar. Well, that alternative turned out to be the viola. The sound of that instrument made Isabel Villanueva stick with that instrument ever since. Four years later she played in the orchestra of the conservatory. At age 14, she had her first solo performance in Oviedo. At that point, she decided to pursue a full-time career as violist. Her studies took her to the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, the Royal College of Music in London, and to the Haute école de musique de Genève.

In her education, Isabel Villanueva worked with notable teachers such as Igor Sulyga (*1951), Yuri Abrámovich Bashmet (*1953), Lawrence Power (*1977), Nobuko Imai (*1943), and Miguel da Silva (*1961). Isabel has since established a firm position as musician not only in Spain, but equally in Western and Eastern Europe, the Near East, concertizing even in places such as Iran. Her activities cover solo performances, chamber music, as well as orchestral works / concertos.

Isabel Villanueva started cooperating with François Dumont in 2016. As a duo, they have recorded her first CD “Bohèmes“, which just appeared in October 2017, see the artist’s Web site.

Isabel Villanueva is playing a viola built 1670 in Turin by Enrico Catenar (c.1620 – 1701).

A Note on the Viola as Solo Instrument

One should not think that playing the viola is easy. The instrument itself (especially if it is a historic one) can be capricious towards the player. At the pitch range of the human voice, the ear is most sensitive to strings & resonances responding badly, or maybe with a delay. At the same time, the (left hand) finger distances are substantially bigger than on the violin, the finger board is farther away from the player.

Dowland: Two Songs

John Dowland (1563 – 1626) was an English Renaissance composer. Among other works, Dowland published thee books of songs (“Booke of Songs or Ayres“). These are songs for a solo voice with lute accompaniment (the lute was his primary instrument). The three books were published (by the composer) 1597, 1600, and 1603:

  • The First Booke of Songs or Ayres” (1597): 21 songs
  • The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres” (1600): 23 songs
  • The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Ayres” (1603): 21 songs

For this concert, Isabel Villanueva and François Dumont selected two of the most famous of John Dowland’s songs:

These were obviously performed on the viola, and accompanied on the modern concert grand.

The selection of the songs obviously corresponds to the ones Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) is quoting in his “Lachrymae“, op.48a—see below.

The Performance

In these songs, Isabel Villanueva played the voice part, a transcription that should be straightforward. François Dumont played a transcript of the original lute tablature notation for piano (which he did himself). Technically, these songs are not challenging on the instruments that the two artists played. Also, with vocal works with lute accompaniment, the issue of old vs. equal temperament tuning is not really relevant. The viola is the ideal instrument to imitate the human voice (followed maybe by the cello). The biggest challenge here may be for the pianist who first needs to decipher lute tablature notation into a piano score. Then, the pianist needs to be acquainted with renaissance ornamentation on the lute. That’s something for which I assume it is best to listen to lute performances.

Placing these songs at the beginning of the program served several purposes: for one, they presented the basis for Britten’s composition that followed, where both songs appear, one as theme for the variations, one as a secondary quote. Then, the pieces allowed the artists to establish a first contact with the audience, and to explore the acoustics in the presence of an audience. It also allowed the audience members to distance themselves from the daily routine, to settle one’s mind on music. Finally, one could get “into” the sound of the viola. That’s an instrument which is rarely heard in solo or duo recitals. And it is notably an instrument that is extremely rich in colors in itself, but which also exists in a wide variety of sound color variants, from more nasal to bright to more full-bodied, etc.

“Flow my tears fall from your springs”

Sure, the concert grand is not the ideal instrument to imitate the sound of a lute, particularly an instrument with a full, rich sonority such as this Steinway. But François Dumont did an excellent job at adopting the ornaments, the little arabesques in Renaissance lute music. And he gave proper support and “sound envelope” to his duo partner, in a venue where a lute might have been somewhat lost, if not thin, at least for the rear parts of the audience. Well done!

Dowland’s song—needless to say—is a marvelous, elegiac, melancholic melody, so touching in itself, even more than 400 years after its creation!

And the viola! To me, the sound of the instrument was instantly fascinating: Isabel Villanueva played with a smooth tone, with virtually no vibrato, perfectly adequate for this music (just a minute, inconspicuous amount of vibration on longer notes), and with the occasional, well-fitting ornament in her melody line.

“If my complaints could passions move”

Initially more earnest, sad in tone, shorter, but more complex in its melodic structure. Also this tune—an equally wonderful renaissance invention—flourished on the viola, retracted into soft parts, even had short, playful moments. I noted the carefully crafted dynamics, the excellent balance between the two instruments.

In short: it was the perfect beginning for this recital!

Britten: Lachrymae, op.48a

In 1950, the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976)—himself also a violist—wrote his Lachrymae“, op.48a, a “Reflection about a song by J. Dowland“, for viola and piano. Britten borrowed the title not from a song, but from a collection of instrumental works by John Dowland (1563 – 1626), namely Lachrymae“, or “Seven Teares, from 1604. The composition is a set of variations, whereby the actual theme, John Dowland’s song “If my complaints could passions move” (from “The First Booke of Songs or Ayres“, see above), is presented at the end of the set only. Variation No.6 also includes a reference to another one of John Dowland’s songs, “Flow my tears” (from “The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres”, see again above). The 12 segments of the composition are as follows:

  1. Lento
  2. Allegretto, andante molto
  3. Animato
  4. Tranquillo
  5. Allegro con moto
  6. Largamente
  7. Appassionato
  8. Alla valse moderato
  9. Allegro marcia
  10. Lento
  11. L’istesso tempo
  12. A tempo semplice (theme)

Britten dedicated “Lachrymae” to the violist William Primrose (1904 – 1982), with whom the composer also premiered the work in 1950.

Downland’s song “Flow my tears” provides a second link to the title of Britten’s composition, as it was initially (1596) published as instrumental work, under the title “Lachrimae pavane“.

The Performance

Britten’s composition threw the listener into a totally different world. In comparison, the harmonies felt like being from a different planet. The sonority was entirely different, with the violist (initially) playing con sordino (with mute), using bowing techniques such as rapid tremolo, playing sul ponticello, which creates eerie effects. In addition, as mentioned above, the theme (“If my complaints could passions move“) is not presented here, but only in the end, i.e., the theme appears broken, “through Britten’s glasses”: only the first triad in Dowland’s tune is present initially (more follows in the bass of the accompaniment). But once one is “in” the music, it is actually fun and very interesting to follow the “Dowland fragments” though these variations!

Excerpts from my Notes

  • excellent coordination in agogics, rubato and dynamics in variation 2, equally excellent intonation on the viola
  • variation 3: the nice sonority in the viola pizzicati, structured by brief chord interjections from the piano, also with excellent sonority. There is also an interesting interchange between relaxing and urging passages.
  • the narrowing atmosphere that is built up in variation 4, which is more a play with harmonies than melodies
  • variation 5 brought “big”, full piano sonority, big gestures. It is technically more demanding. It’s probably in Britten’s composition that the viola was more challenged, dynamically. But the mute was removed here, and the viola was still able to maintain its acoustic presence. One also recognized baroque, maybe classic gestures in the viola part, which also features multi-stop playing.
  • No dynamic challenge for the viola in the following variation. It’s a chain of melancholic melody fragments, where the viola appeared to listen the acoustic response to its own tones, as they faded away. The piano accompanies with scarce staccato chords.
  • variation 7 is a kind of recitative. It’s very narrative and expressive, even dramatic on the viola, exploring a wide tonal range
  • … (skipping details here) …
  • indeed, in the last variation, the Dowland song appears as a warm, soothing, touching ending. Here, it is close to the original, also harmonically, and closing the circle back to Dowland’s original.

More Remarks

  • the rich variety in viola sonority, its sound colors, from rough to smooth, from nasal to singing, from tremolo to flageolet, from the eerie sound of the sul ponticello playing to the full sound of ff multi-stop chords and eruptions—fascinating!
  • with all these means, the artists created a rich range of atmospheres—urging, calm, dramatic, lyrical, tension, eruption, serenity, loneliness…
  • the very long-lasting bass resonances of the piano offered an opportunity for exceptionally long “listening fermatas”
  • I noted the excellent mutual attention and coordination, even without obvious eye contact (Isabel Villanueva was playing on the left, almost in the pianist’s back, facing the center of the venue). I had the impression of a well-rehearsed team.

Those who watched Isabel Villanueva at close range may have noted her changing facial expressions while playing. I had the impression that this wasn’t just “inadvertent grimacing” (à la Brendel, where they could be really distracting), but possibly an attempt to adjust her hearing to the varying location and quality of the sound coming from the instrument, which which she keeps constant, intense contact via her neck and chin. Or was she maybe activating and adjusting resonant spaces in her forehead, in order to amplify or modulate the sound? After all, head and viola form a single, resonant body!

Brahms: Sonata No.2 in E♭ major, op.120/2

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed his Sonata No.2 for Clarinet or Viola and Piano in E♭ major, op.120/2 for the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (1856 – 1907). Consequently, the work (along with its sister composition, the Sonata No.1 in F minor, op.120/1) is known as “clarinet sonata”. Even though Brahms himself later arranged it such that it equally suits both the clarinet and the viola. The two sonatas op.120 are Brahms’ last chamber music compositions. The second sonata features three movements:

  1. Allegro amabile (4/4)
  2. Allegro appassionato (3/4)
  3. Andante con moto — Allegro (6/8)

Clarinet duo recitals are a rarity in current concert life. The same can be said about duo recitals with viola and piano. So, the average concertgoer will probably never hear these sonatas in concert. Hence, this recital was a most welcome opportunity to experience one of these warm-hearted, serene, simply beautiful sonatas in concert.

The Performance

It’s a long time since I have last heard this piece. And I didn’t listen to it many times. Certainly, when I heard it, it was with clarinet: that’s the instrument that sounds in my memory, up to this performance. However, from the first notes it was clear to me: the clarinet has a lot of character in its sound, and it, too, can sing very nicely. However, the sound of the viola is so much richer, more charming, more lovely and delightful, that from now on it will be hard to enjoy the clarinet version to the same extent!

Also, the sound of the viola (albeit weaker than that of a clarinet) was rarely ever in danger of drowning in the full, round, resonant sound of the Steinway (and the lid was fully open!). And this was true even with Brahms rhapsodic, both wide-spanning and dense piano score.

I. Allegro amabile

Ah, this is such marvelous music! Full of atmosphere, serene (like a summer day in nature), with a slightly melancholic undercurrent, very expressive, narrative (particularly with the viola’s “human” voice!), rhapsodic and and rich in expressions in the piano, occasionally also with dramatic emotional outbreaks (memories of love in earlier days?). Amabile? Most, for sure!

II. Allegro appassionato

The beginning of this movement is interesting, as Brahms leaves the rhythm “in the air” for the first bars: the melody in the viola is hemiolic. It takes several bars until the piano settles the 3/4 meter. Excellent duo playing again, in the swaying nature of this movement. The Sostenuto part features broad, rhapsodic singing in the piano, which is then widened by the viola. after a short, calm moment, the music breaks out into an expressive, almost violent emotional eruption, then gradually calms down again towards the end. Clarinet or viola? Sorry for the wind instrument players, but, in my mind, the viola clearly prevails in this sonata!

III. Andante con moto — Allegro

The last movement is a set of variations. The viola presents a wonderful, melodic theme, lyrical and also somewhat melodic, so typical for Brahms! The theme is taken through a set of variations, mostly with growing complexity, higher technical demands, returning to a calm, serene dialog between the instruments. The grazioso variation is a lovely, vivid interchange of demisemiquaver motifs. This appeared agile, seamless and smooth with these two artists. The Allegro part is dominated by a vivid, virtuosic piano part. And again, the viola had no problem making itself heard. After a short, more lyrical segment, the movement ends in a big, virtuosic, even brilliant gesture.

François Dumont not only showed excellent mastership at the instrument, he also was excellent in exploiting, exposing the full, rich sonority of the instrument.

Isabel Villanueva & François Dumont, Zurich, 2017-11-21 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Isabel Villanueva & François Dumont, Zurich, 2017-11-21 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Franck: Sonata in A major, FWV 8

In an earlier post from 2012-07-30, I have briefly touched upon a few recordings of the Sonata in A major, FWV 8, by César Franck (1822 – 1890). That work is mostly known as Sonata for violin and piano, though the composer also created a version for cello and piano. As indicated in my earlier post, there are at least voices claiming that the original version is the one for cello. The sonata is one of the most beautiful chamber music compositions of the 19th century. It features four movements:

  1. Allegretto ben moderato
  2. Allegro
  3. Ben moderato: Recitativo-Fantasia
  4. Allegretto poco mosso

Playing the Sonata on a Viola

Here, the string instrument was a viola, obviously not the composer’s original idea. So, I wondered whether the version played was based on the version for cello. The viola is a fifth lower than the violin, the distances between the fingers in the left hand are bigger, so adopting violin music for the viola is a challenge not just in tonal range, but also in that double / multiple stop playing can be real tricky on the left hand. Transposing the sonata to D major would solve the tonal range problem, but does not solve the problem for the left hand. Plus, it would alter the character of the piece completely (changing to a different register on the piano).

On a cello, Franck obviously had to adjust the string part to the even much wider distances on the finger board, and the differences in agility, etc. — However, taking that version onto the viola should be a no-brainer, as it simply meant transposing the cello part by an octave (both instruments are tuned C-G-D-A). I checked with Isabel Villanueva. To my amazement, she told me that she essentially played the version for the violin, mostly even at the original pitch, with minor adaptations that she did herself.

Needless to say that such arrangements are to be considered entirely legitimate: that’s something that has been done all the time, even during a composer’s lifetime. Plus, the repertoire for the viola is not all that big, so the desire for violists to expand it is more than understandable.

The Performance

As indicated, I’m familiar with both the violin and the cello version of this sonata. I was amazed to hear how well the viola fits into this picture! Violinists and cellists may stone me for this: based on this performance, I think the viola is just as intense, even more intense in expression than the violin, richer in colors. And its sound is never as incisive as many violins! Also, the sound of the viola mixes far better with the piano than that of the violin. At the same time, it avoids the balance issues that the cello often has with a modern concert grand, but also doesn’t dominate over the piano. Sounds like the ideal instrument for this sonata? OK, it’s not the composer’s exact intent, but after this performance I don’t see why this should not be a legitimate option!

I. Allegretto ben moderato

Another highlight of 19th century chamber music! In the opening movement, I noted how the artists were able to shape this into one single, continuous, big arch, with a broad climax: very intense music, wonderful!

II. Allegro

Virtuosic and agile in the piano part (excellent playing), intense singing on the viola, in a dialog with responses from the descant line in the piano, and again forming broad arches. Throughout the numerous tempo annotations the artists maintained excellent coordination. I liked the expressive fuocoso in the viola, the expressive playing in general, and how François Dumont carefully highlighted the melody in the descant, in the dialog segments.

III. Ben moderato: Recitativo-Fantasia

After a short prelude on the piano, the viola opens with a 6-bar, very exposed and expressive recitative-solo. The following bars sound almost harmless. Then there is another instance of the recitative. The movement is alternating between reflective and expressive segments. The piano part may not be all that virtuosic. Still, in my view, the movement is a real challenge. It received an excellent performance here: very expressive, but not over-emphatic, carefully controlled dynamics, e.g., in the Coda, the pochissimo crescendo (from pp) leading up to a fff climax, which the artists did not overpower.

IV. Allegretto poco mosso

The last movement begins serene, with almost Schubertian singing, beautiful cantilenas in the viola, but also with almost Brahmsian gestures in the piano part. And again impressive harmonious phrasing arches and dramatic build-ups, once more exposing the impressive ff sonority of the piano. A brilliant composition with an enthralling ending—and an excellent performance!

Encore — Debussy: Chanson “Beau Soir”, L.6

At young age (1877/78), allegedly during his studies at the Conservatoire de Paris, Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) composed a song “Beau Soir” (“beautiful evening”), based on a poem by the novelist and critic Paul Bourget (1852 – 1935). The song has gained and retained vast popularity, particularly in France. It has seen many adaptations and arrangements. Notable arrangements: for violin & piano by Jascha Haifetz (1901 – 1987), and one for cello & piano by Julian Lloyd-Webber (*1951).

As an encore, Isabel Villanueva & François Dumont played the original song by Debussy. Needless to say that the voice melody aptly suits the viola: a very nice, touching, melancholic, both serene and atmospheric song! And it was an excellent closure for a very nice and interesting concert, letting people recover from the intensity of the Franck sonata!

Thanks to both artists for their excellent recital! Thanks also for staying around after the concert, for chats and discussions. I sincerely hope that this was not the last encounter!

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