Although considerably more rare than the violin-piano duo, the viola-piano duo traces at least as far back as Mendelssohn’s 1824 sonata for viola and piano. Max Reger and Paul Hindemith—the latter a violist himself—added substantially to the repertoire in the last century, as did Darius Milhaud, Hans Werner Henze, George Rochberg and others. Now, Serbian-Hungarian violist Szilárd Mezei and Bolognese pianist Nicola Guazzaloca bring the viola-piano duo into the twenty-first century, albeit in a manner that departs substantially from the conventional chamber sonata.
Unlike classical sonatas, these eight improvisations, four each from concerts in Lucca and Bologna, develop through variations of timbre, dynamics and density rather than through melodic themes and harmonic modulation. But although much of the playing negates the formal vocabulary and syntax of the classical viola-piano duo, something of the latter’s ability to capture an emotional arc remains. The music can be tempestuous, placid, abstract or even plainly melodic, as when Mezei delivers a modal soliloquy during the third improvisation from Lucca. Both improvisers draw on an expanded palette of instrumental colors, setting conventional and unconventional techniques in a mutually illuminating dialogue with each other. Guazzaloca moves agilely from the keyboard to playing directly on the strings inside the piano; his use of objects in association with the piano emphasizes the instrument’s often-obscured status as a percussion instrument. Mezei, too, plays percussively, using a full-bodied attack with the bow as well as a forceful pizzicato; his engagement with hypermodern performance techniques doesn’t eclipse an expressive immediacy consonant with his involvement with Hungarian folk traditions.