August 10, 2006


William Primrose: Viola Transcriptions. Roberto Díaz, viola; Robert Koenig, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Lillian Fuchs: Complete Music for Unaccompanied Viola. Jeanne Mallow, viola. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     It was not until the 20th century that the viola really came into its own as a solo instrument.  True, Telemann wrote both viola and two-viola concertos, and both Mozart and Beethoven played the instrument – though neither composed much for it.  True, Berlioz wrote Harold in Italy as a viola showpiece for Paganini, but the great violinist rejected the work as insufficiently virtuosic.  Yes, Brahms wrote his two great op. 120 sonatas for viola and piano in 1894 – but they were actually written first for clarinet, and are more frequently performed as wind pieces.  Then, even later in the century, Richard Strauss gave the solo viola the role of Sancho Panza in his 1897 tone poem Don Quixote, which is cast as a set of variations – but even there, the viola literally played second fiddle…to the cello.

     It was left to 20th-century violist-composer Paul Hindemith to make the solo viola a force to be reckoned with – as it also is in the Viola Concerto by Walton and the unfinished one by Bartók.  But those are still mighty slim pickings for the truly great violists – which is why one of the greatest, William Primrose, decided to arrange some showstoppers of his own.  Roberto Díaz, former principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, now owns Primrose’s Amati viola, and uses it brilliantly on a new Naxos CD.  Because the viola is tuned a fifth below the violin – it lacks an upper E string but has a bottom C string – it has a warmer, richer tone than its smaller cousin (“violin” actually means “little viola”).  That tone is heard to wonderful advantage in the Nocturne from Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2, the fifth of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, and brief pieces by Tchaikovsky and Brahms.  But the viola has a playful side that is far less often presented.  On this CD, it sounds especially good in an arrangement of the “La Campanella” finale from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2.  The longest work here, the four-movement Sarasateana by Efrem Zimbalist, explores both the emotive and the dramatic sides of the viola.  But the most interesting work on the CD also contains a seed of disappointment: Beethoven’s Notturno, op. 42 – an arrangement of his op. 8 Serenade for string trio – has seven movements, but Díaz plays only three, leaving listeners hungry for more.  Still, this CD is a wonderful showcase for an instrument that is more beautiful than many listeners realize.

     The two-CD set of Lillian Fuchs’ complete music for solo viola, played skillfully and lovingly on Fuchs’ Gasparo da Salò viola by Fuchs’ granddaughter, Jeanne Mallow, offers much more of the viola but a much less satisfactory listening experience.  Of the nearly two hours of music here, only the 12-minute Sonata Pastorale was written for performance.  It is a pleasant, unmemorable work with moderate technical demands.  The rest of the pieces here are three sets of studies for violists to use to hone their skills.  Twelve Caprices for Viola is the most technically demanding, Sixteen Fantasy Etudes somewhat less so, and Fifteen Characteristic Studies for Viola the simplest – though scarcely easy.  All these sets of brief pieces thoroughly explore the instrument.  A violist who becomes adept with these works will be skillful in bowing, double stops, harmonics, fugal form and much more.  But the pieces do not sound well for listeners.  They are intended to be played – and quickly become repetitious when merely heard.  This two-CD set deserves a (+++) rating because of the skill of the playing, the interesting technical elements in the works, and the few individual pieces that stand out: the “Doloroso” in the Caprices, the fuga or fugato in each set, the marches in the Etudes and Caprices, the “Perpetuum Mobile” in the Studies.  But the CDs as a whole will be of interest primarily to violists, who may wish to compare their own handling of Fuchs’ studies with that of Mallow.

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