Callus' viola recital a savored rarity

Seattle Times music critic


Music review

City Music presents violist Helen Callus, with pianist Rachel Matthews, in recital; Saturday night.


Violas are a staple of the orchestral and chamber-music worlds, but they usually end up playing the harmony - scarcely ever the melody. As a recital instrument, the viola is something of a rarity; rarer by far is a recital of the caliber offered by violist Helen Callus and pianist Rachel Matthews this past weekend.

Callus, a young University of Washington faculty member who grew up in England, has spent a great deal of energy and enthusiasm bringing her instrument to the forefront here in the past few years.

Saturday's well-chosen recital program opened with Schumann's "Marchenbilder," went on to the Viola Sonata of English composer Rebecca Clarke, and concluded with Shostakovich's last work, his Op. 147 Viola Sonata - three great works, played with compelling mastery and artistry.

From the opening notes of the Schumann, it was clear that Callus' most remarkable asset is her tone: deep, rich, dark. (Violas and coffee may appear to have a lot in common.)

Hers is a beautiful sound, one that seems infinitely malleable into all kinds of musical subtleties. Bold, true and confident, this is the sound that warmed up the Schumann, launched the triumphant opening of the Clarke, and negotiated the acerbic heights of the Shostakovich with equal success.

Callus' technical finesse was equally impressive. Her bow control was exhibited most clearly in the Shostakovich, from the otherworldly subtleties of the opening movement to the attenuated soliloquies of the third.

She had a first-rate partner in pianist Rachel Matthews, a commanding player, yet one who found an instinctive balance with the violist. Matthews' technique and control, especially evident in the second movement of the Clarke sonata, were major factors in the success of the program.

Matthews was well served by the piano, a fine Heintzman instrument recently donated to Town Hall by Randolph and Dorothy Cadzow Hokanson.

The entire concert proceeds also were donated, by the artists and presenters, to the University District Food Bank, in keeping with City Music's civic-activist stance.

Shakespeare called music "the food of love;" here is music that provides real food as well.