October 13, 2011


Martinů: Sonata for Viola and Piano; Kodály: Adagio; Dohnányi: Sonata in C-sharp minor; Joachim: Hebrew Melodies (“Impressions of Byron’s Poems”); Enescu: Concertstück. Sarah-Jane Bradley, viola; Anthony Hewitt, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Penderecki: Viola Concerto; Cello Concerto No. 2. Grigori Zhislin, viola; Tatjana Vassiljeva, cello; Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $9.99.

Bartók: Viola Concerto; Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. James Ehnes, violin and viola; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $18.99.

     It is probably fair, at last, to proclaim the viola a stepchild no more. Long neglected as a solo instrument (despite a few viola concertos written in the 18th century and the occasional 19th-century aberration, such as Berlioz’ Harold in Italy), the viola came increasingly into solo use in the 20th century and has now begun to attract an entire new generation of viola-focused string players – as well as an increasing number of recordings. The viola repertoire is not as deep as that of the violin, and likely never will be, but the days in which violists had little original music to play and had to rely primarily on arrangements of violin pieces are now mostly gone. And composers are showing themselves increasingly interested in making use of the viola’s unusual expressive potential, its deeper and richer sound made possible by its tuning a fifth beneath that of the violin and its virtuosity potentially just as great as that of its smaller cousin.

     Sara-Jane Bradley’s new viola-and-piano CD shows all these elements. Bohuslav Martinů’s 1955 sonata combines folklike melodies with considerable lyricism, mixing pungent and rhapsodic elements and using sounds from the wistful to the modern. Close cooperation between viola and piano is crucial here, and Bradley works very well with pianist Anthony Hewitt. Zoltán Kodály’s early Adagio (1905) can be, and is, played on violin or cello as well as viola, but its quietly intense romanticism sounds particularly moving when played with the sensitivity that Bradley brings to it. Ernő Dohnányi’s Sonata in C-sharp minor is a bit of a throwback for this CD, since it is actually a violin work that Bradley has arranged for viola – not a piece originally written for her instrument. Dating to 1912, the sonata is in three movements that are played continuously. It combines romanticism with an effective cyclic structure that ends in a mood of nostalgia. As a composer, Dohnányi was strongly influenced by violinist Joseph Joachim, who in turn was influenced by Liszt in his own compositions, such as Hebrew Melodies. This is the only 19th-century work on this CD, dating to the second half of the 1850s, and it is deeply imbued with the spirit of the Romantic era. Based on Old Testament stories and Byronic poems, but without any specific notation about ways in which the music is intended to correspond to any particular tale or poetry, the three-movement work is mostly in minor keys – in which the viola’s tone is particularly apt – and ranges in mood from melancholy to pastoral simplicity. Bradley and Hewitt conclude this fine CD with George Enescu’s well-known Concertstück, which was written as a competition piece in 1906 and which very effectively combines the lyricism and virtuosity that together are the hallmarks of the well-played viola.

     It is not only in chamber music that the viola has come into its own: concertos for viola have been written by an increasing number of composers, in a wide variety of styles. Krzysztof Penderecki’s dates to 1983 and quickly became so popular that, for a change, a viola work was soon being transcribed for other instruments (cello and clarinet). Opening with a viola solo and initially playing the string sections against each other before involving the full orchestra, the work meanders through many moods in seven connected sections of widely varying lengths (one lasts only 40 seconds). The elements of traditional concerto writing are all here – slower and faster sections, expressive and scherzando character, segments in which the soloist leads the orchestra and others in which the solo instrument responds to and plays against the ensemble. But Penderecki uses these elements in his own distinctive way, which includes considerable use of percussion and a formal structure that has the work beginning and ending in the same slow tempo and eventually fading into nothingness. Grigori Zhislin plays with fervor and emotional involvement, and Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic provide strong and nuanced backup. They are equally fine accompanists for Tatjana Vassiljeva in Penderecki’s Cello Concerto No. 2 (1982), which was written for Mstislav Rostropovich. A larger and grander work than the viola concerto – it lasts nearly twice as long – this concerto has a generally bleaker and more “modern” sound, with abundant use of chordal clusters, forceful climaxes and (not surprisingly) considerable percussion involvement. Penderecki, who has been stylistically accretive for the past 30 years, also includes elements that bespeak romantic earnestness, if not romanticism of harmony or form. The longest of the concerto’s seven sections (which, as in the viola concerto, are played continuously) is the central one and the heart of the work, and includes a particularly affecting cello monologue played initially against a sonically interesting woodwind-and-percussion background. The concerto is perhaps more impressive than immediately attractive, but it reveals new elements on additional hearings – which it deserves.

     One of the two best-known 20th-century viola concertos, and arguably the most important of all, is the incomplete one left behind by Béla Bartók at his death in 1945; only William Walton’s concerto is equally highly regarded. Bartók’s work is usually heard in the version by Tibor Serly, although other completions are now gaining ground as more authentic and effective in their own ways (notably that of Bartók’s son, Peter). It is the Serly version that James Ehnes performs with Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic, and this concerto has rarely been heard with as much intensity and lyrical beauty as it has here. Ehnes has so effectively conquered the considerable technical difficulties of the concerto that listeners hear the work’s flow, its dynamism, its mood changes and structural elements, rather than simply its complexity, resulting in a highly rewarding and emotionally very moving experience. Ehnes is also a violinist of considerable skill, as he shows in the two violin concertos that accompany the viola concerto on his new Chandos CD. The viola concerto is in the composer’s late style, while the two violin concertos are in his early and middle style, respectively. Ehnes is equally comfortable with all the works. The first concerto (1907-08) mixes a late-Romantic ethos with a tonal and rhythmic structure reminiscent of folk songs, which Bartók was collecting at the time but had not yet begun incorporating into his music in any significant way. The more-substantial second concerto (completed in 1938 and first played in 1939) is largely built around variations, with the central movement in variation form and the finale using variations of themes from the first movement. Bartók neatly introduces something akin to 12-tone music in the first movement, but manages to keep the overall effect tonal. The harp is significant here, beginning the entire concerto and also figuring prominently in the second movement. And there is particularly clever use of the violin in a second-movement passage in which the overall tempo is slow but the soloist pays rapid figurations. Throughout all these works – the violin concertos and the viola concerto – the sense of camaraderie between Ehnes and Noseda never flags, and the result is a very impressive CD that not only shows how far the viola has come but also shows just how interesting modern concertos for the violin can be.

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