Carl Philipp Stamitz: Viola Concerto No. 1; Franz Anton Hoffmeister: Viola Concertos in D and B-flat. Victoria Chiang, viola; Baltimore Chamber Orchestra conducted by Markand Thakar. Naxos. $9.99.
Alexander Winkler: Sonata for Viola and Piano; Two Pieces for Viola and Piano; Varvara Gaigerova: Suite for Viola and Piano; Paul Juon: Sonata for Viola and Piano. Eliesha Nelson, viola; Glen Inanga, piano. Sono Luminus. $16.99.
The longstanding neglect of the viola as a solo instrument shows many signs of ending. Modern violists are not content to be relegated to accompaniment roles and center-of-the-orchestra modesty, and producers in search of interesting new repertoire – and interesting new soloists – are discovering that there is a great deal of unexplored material for the viola out there…and not only from composers influenced by that towering 20th-century figure, Lionel Tertis (1876-1975). It turns out that even in the Classical era, there was some very interesting music written for viola soloists to play; and in more modern times, there is something of a treasure trove (still being mined) of viola works not influenced by Tertis. On the 18th-century front, the concertos by Carl Philipp Stamitz (son of the famed Johann, leader of the Mannheim court orchestra) and Franz Anton Hoffmeister (best known today as a music publisher – of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Clementi, Pleyel and others) provide a fine opportunity for Victoria Chiang to excel in the solo role, with Markand Thakar and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra offering balanced and attractively buoyant backup. The Stamitz concerto is the most interesting of the three and the most “violistic,” emphasizing the solo instrument’s warmth and glow in an unusually orchestrated work that includes divisi violas plus clarinets rather than oboes – the clarinet’s range and sound world being closer to that of the viola. The virtuosity that this concerto demands is substantial, including harmonics and left-hand pizzicati that make it sound in some ways like a 19th-century work rather than one written around 1774. The Hoffmeister concertos are also well made, but they are more ordinary in sound and approach. Both are elegant enough in their first movements and cheerful enough in their finales, and both have slow movements that are wistful rather than profound. Hoffmeister’s orchestration is more traditional than that of Stamitz, and Hoffmeister emphasizes the viola’s upper range to a greater degree, creating works that are certainly pleasant but ultimately not terribly distinguished – even from each other. Nevertheless, they are filled with lovely moments and are quite well played on this CD.
The viola-and-piano music performed by Eliesha Nelson and Glen Inanga on a CD called “Russian Viola Sonatas” is almost all unfamiliar: every piece here except the sonata by Paul Juon (1872-1940) is a world première recording. The Juon is an interesting blend of Brahmsian elements and Russian folk music, structured in the traditional three movements and featuring some interesting approaches to an uneven meter. In scale, though, it does not approach the sonata by Alexander Winkler (1865-1935), a massive work that lasts over half an hour and concludes with a movement called “Variations sur un air Breton” – and has all four movements in the same key, C minor. This is a dark piece, as the key indicates, and one in which stormy elements are nicely set against calmer major-key ones in which, at times, the piano leads the music and the viola becomes the accompanist. The concluding variations, which even include a fugue immediately before the coda, are impressively sure-handed and provide both players with opportunities to shine as virtuosi. Winker’s Two Pieces for Viola and Piano is a smaller and much shorter work that nicely contrasts a meditative first movement with a Scherzino that amusingly portrays children playing with a spinning top. But none of these works seems as completely Russian as the suite by Varvara Gaigerova (1903-1944), which consists of four short movements reflecting folk idioms not only of Russia itself but also of some of the minority Soviet nationalities whose songs Gaigerova transcribed (Uzbek, Tatar, Kazakh and others). There is considerable chromaticism in Gaigerova’s suite, with the opening and final movements conveying a feeling of desolation while the two middle ones are more good-hearted. Nelson and Inanga have clearly studied these works carefully and internalized their salient elements: the performances not only sound very good but also seem quite idiomatic, even though neither performer is even a bit Russian – Nelson comes from Alaska and Inanga from England. Taken together, the Russian disc and that featuring 18th-century concertos show to just how great an extent the neglect of the viola has turned into an appreciation of its unique and very beautiful sound.