Sophisticated Sound World

Constantin Zanidache

Sophisticated Sound World

The viola player Constantin Zanidache, founder member of the Academica Quartet and a former teacher at MTU Cork School of Music, recently gave a recital of Bach and John Kinsella in the Curtis Auditorium. Geoffrey Spratt reviews.

On Sunday 20 February, at midday in the Curtis Auditorium of the MTU Cork School of Music, the Romanian-born and trained, but long-time Irish-resident viola player, Constantin Zanidache, performed a programme of music by J.S. Bach and John Kinsella. The recital was noteworthy not just because it featured the première of the last work composed by the recently deceased Kinsella, but for several other important reasons. Zanidache has been a tireless performer for half a century. His achievements as a quartet player (a founder member of the Academica Quartet, RTÉ’s string quartet from 1978 to 1984), are matched by his somewhat more recent performances as a recitalist. In Cork, we have been treated to his recitals with the Italian pianist Marco Grisanti, to concerto performances, and to solo performances that have brought us, inter alia, the ground-breaking works by Hindemith for an instrument the composer frequently played in public. Both Zanidache, and his wife Cornelia, have inspired generations of string players through their teaching in the Cork School of Music over the last four decades and it was heartening to see many of them, together with former colleagues, throughout the hall.

To continue playing solo in public when you are in your seventies demands a technique that hasn’t even begun to desert you. Throughout this recital, Zanidache reminded us of his superb and distinctive bowing technique, which, combined with the exceptionally fine instrument he plays (made by the Cork-based luthier Bertrand Galen in 2007), treated us to a consistently rich and tonally sophisticated sound world. His is playing that is also underpinned by enormous musical intelligence. Every movement of the Bach Suite in D, BWV 1008, had architectural coherence that was projected with clarity and subtlety. The part-writing – actual and implied – was impeccably balanced, and the realisation of the harmonic structures – macro and micro – projected a convincing sense of style that transcended any consideration of historical performance practice.

Last Kinsella work
Zanidache has also been a tireless commissioner of new music for his instrument, and recorded James Wilson’s Menorah for Naxos with the RTÉ NSO. Kinsella wrote Dialogue for him in 1991; it was particularly appropriate, therefore, to hear this alongside the last work he completed, Conversation (2021), in response to a further request from Zanidache. In both works it is clear that one is listening to a composer who had an undeniably distinctive voice, with a masterful control of compositional techniques, and who was more than capable of addressing the peculiarly demanding task of writing for unaccompanied viola. Both pieces are characterised by contrast; in Dialogue it is the juxtaposition of gentle and aggressive musical material; in Conversation it is between music played arco and pizzicato. Both pieces deserve to be heard repeatedly, and although Kinsella is acclaimed as Ireland’s leading symphonist, we should never be allowed to forget his skills and achievements as a composer of chamber music. 

In typically generous fashion, Zanidache then offered an encore: the first performance in Ireland of Cadenza for solo viola by Tom Cullivan. Originally Cullivan was to write a viola concerto for Zanidache; what emerged by 2004 was this stand-alone piece that Zanidache premièred in Monte Carlo during March of that year (in a programme also containing Eric Sweeney’s Aria, James Wilson’s Capriccio for Constantin, and Kinsella’s Dialogue) as part of the city’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations. The distinct tinge of Irishness that characterises Cullivan’s music – here overtly march-inspired – helps give the piece cohesion, but it must be acknowledged that some melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, tonal and developmental limitations were exposed by the exceptional qualities of both Kinsella’s works.

As we emerge from nearly two years of being without regular live music-making, it is to be hoped that recitals such as this will quickly become the norm. I suggest, without hesitation, that there is no need for a return to an unthinking past, where a combination of quantity, misguided popular appeal and predictability held sway. Of course audiences for classical music need to be rebuilt, but let us not witness either mere repetition and duplication, let alone dumbing down. We need distinctiveness and quality. The attendance at this recital, which wasn’t packaged with a halo of publicity, demonstrated that audiences can and will respond to challenging but thoughtful programming when it is delivered with unassailable quality. 

Published on 8 March 2022

After 16 years lecturing in UCC’s Music Department, Geoffrey Spratt went on to be the Director of the Cork School of Music for 24 years, and is an acclaimed choral and orchestral conductor. In 1980, Aloys Fleischmann, Aiveen Kearney and Geoffrey Spratt founded the Association of Irish Choirs/Cumann Náisiúnta nCór, now Sing Ireland, and in 1982 he and Aiveen Kearney founded the Irish Youth Choir.

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