Schubert: Arpeggione Sonata; Liebesbotschaft (Schwanengesang); An den Mond; Dass Sie Hier Gewesen; Wehmut; Nacht und Träume; Die Taubenpost (Schwanengesang); Ich Schleiche Bang und Still Herum (Romanze der Helene); Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. Antoine Tamestit, viola; Sandrine Piau, soprano; Markus Hadulla, piano. Naïve. $16.99.
The Virtuoso Viola. Roger Chase, viola; Michiko Otaki, piano. Naxos. $8.99.
Soviet Russian Viola Music. Igor Fedotov, viola; Gary Hammond, piano; Leonid Vechkhayzer, piano. Naxos. $8.99.
The viola is the basis, linguistically as well as musically, of the string-instrument family. The word “violin” (“little viola”) derives from it, as do “violoncello,” “bass viol” and the names of such old instruments as the violone (“large viola”), viola da gamba and viola da braccio. But the viola has played second fiddle, so to speak, to the violin – and to most of its other cousins – for hundreds of years, coming more fully into its own only in the 20th century. Even today, recordings focused on the viola remain a bit exotic, so it is interesting to find three of them released at nearly the same time.
Everything on Antoine Tamestit’s Schubert CD sings, including the songs with words and the ones he has transformed into songs without them. Tamestit offers warm tone and heartfelt playing throughout a program that is pervaded by melancholy. The 1824 Arpeggione Sonata – written for an obsolete instrument, invented in 1823, that has six strings, is fretted and tuned like a guitar, but is bowed like a cello – is played on cello or viola nowadays, the larger instrument providing more richness but the smaller one more effectively emphasizing this work’s wonderful dancelike rhythms and overall tunefulness. Tamestit – with excellent accompaniment from Markus Hadulla – offers an altogether beautiful reading, warm and lively and winning in every way. And then he does something highly unusual, and not for purists: in six Schubert songs, he plays the melody on viola and eliminates the voice altogether. The viola, like the clarinet, does have much of the range and richness of the human voice, and the songs – all of them sad, to varying degrees – have an emotional and lovely sound here, a songs-without-words beauty to rival Mendelssohn’s. But of course Mendelssohn deliberately wrote his Songs without Words, and these Schubert works were intended to be sung (Naïve even provides the original texts – a nice touch). So Tamestit’s transcription seems a little odd and perhaps even a bit self-indulgent – which does not, however, detract from the beauty of his performance’s sound. Furthermore, this CD does offer some Schubert songs with words, and Sandrine Piau sings them with elegance and emotional conviction. There is also a viola transcription in these songs – Romanze der Helene and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen – since they originally called for clarinet and Tamestit here uses his viola instead. But the range and sound of clarinet and viola are close enough so the substitution sounds quite natural here (as it does, for example, in Brahms’ two Op. 120 sonatas for clarinet or viola and piano). This is a beautiful-sounding CD, experimental in some ways, that effectively showcases the range of the viola and the lovely tones of which, in the right hands, it is capable.
If Schubert’s music makes it possible to showcase the viola’s rich and beautiful sound, works by other composers have shown it to be an instrument capable of considerable virtuosity. Unsurprisingly, the CD called The Virtuoso Viola celebrates the “display” side of viola playing in nine works, all performed with panache by Roger Chase and Michiko Otaki. Georges Enescu’s Pièce de Concert is a standout in combining beauty with performance prowess. Henry Vieuxtemps’ Elégie focuses on the viola’s burnished tone, to fine effect, while the same composer’s Capriccio for Solo Viola shows off the instrument’s more intense and playful side. Zoltán Kodály’s solo-viola transcription of Bach’s Fantasia Cromatica is technically very impressive and displays the viola in a serious mode. For sheer virtuosity, there is Paganini’s Sonata per la Gran Viola, which is not a sonata but a theme and variations – building to considerable fireworks by the end – and in which “Gran” refers not to the music but to the fact that Paganini wrote the piece for the oversize viola that he preferred to play. Paganini’s work is the longest on this CD, at nearly 15 minutes, but Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro delivers an equally impressive virtuoso workout in one-third the time. Le Tombeau de Ravel by Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960), which is almost the length of Paganini’s “sonata,” takes the viola through many different technical and emotional levels – to fine effect. Introduction et Danse by Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) is more unidimensional, but is quite impressive on its own level. And the concluding, shortest work here, Scherzo by Chase’s teacher, Bernard Shore (1896-1985), ends the CD with enough intensity to make the viola’s capabilities abundantly clear. It would be stretching to say that there is any great music here, but a great deal of it is very pleasant indeed, and the quality of the music – as well as of the playing – repays repeated listening.
Soviet Russian Viola Music is a less successful display of what the viola can do – and was called on to do in the 20th century. All five works here have at least moderately grand pretentions, but they are, by and large, pretentious – and there is a sameness in the approach of several pieces that makes them come across as rather “grey” in sound. In particular, the sonatas for viola and piano by Vladimir Kryukov (1920-1/1933) and Sergey Vasilenko (1923) sound like warmed-over Debussy with a dab of Scriabin. They are intermittently effective but do not sustain interest from start to finish. The sonata by Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky was written a generation later (1956) and has considerably more to it, especially in its central theme-and-variations and brief concluding Postludia. Later still are the sonatas by Grigory Frid (1971) and Yulian Krein (1973). Frid’s work is emotionally the deepest on this CD and the most thoroughly interconnected structurally, with all three of its movements based on the same material; the finale, given over almost entirely to solo viola, shows considerable creativity. Krein’s sonata, though, harks back to early-century Impressionism, being colorful but not especially distinctive. This CD gets a (+++) rating: the music is, by and large, simply not very interesting, although Igor Fedotov plays all the pieces with dedication and intensity and is ably backed up by Gary Hammond in the Krein and Bogdanov-Berezovsky works and by Leonid Vechkhayzer in the rest of the program.