April 22, 2010


English Viola Sonatas: Gordon Jacob, John Ireland, Malcolm Arnold, Frederick Delius, Lennox Berkeley. Martin Outram, viola; Julian Rolton, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Haydn: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 4; Mendelssohn: Octet. Gil Shaham, violin; Sejong Soloists. Canary Classics. $16.99.

Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin. Konrad Jarnot, baritone; Alexander Schmalcz, piano. Oehms. $16.99.

     The viola’s resurgence as a solo instrument during the 20th century was focused largely in England, because violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) was so influential on so many British composers: Bax, Bridge, Elgar, Holst, Walton and others. Some of those “others” are represented on a beautifully played CD of English sonatas from the last century that were written or transcribed for the viola. Every one of these five works has something to recommend it. Gordon Jacob’s sonata has long lines and a high level of expressiveness, taking full advantage of the viola’s warm, singing tone without neglecting its virtuoso possibilities – highlighted in the work’s brief finale. Malcolm Arnold’s sonata is atmospheric and fast-changing, a winning combination of melancholy and puckishness with a sonic world all its own. The sonata by Lennox Berkeley is more conventional, well made and refined, allotting soulfulness as well as flashes of wit to the viola. The other two works here are arrangements. John Ireland’s Cello Sonata was transcribed by Tertis (and first played in that version, in 1941, by Tertis on viola and Ireland on piano). This work lies very well on the viola, calling for wide-ranging, rich sound and a vein of nostalgia throughout. Martin Outram not only plays these four works with understanding and enthusiasm but also is himself the transcriber of the fifth: Delius’ Cello Sonata, whose nearly continuous lyrical line is absolutely gorgeous on the viola, giving this one-movement work the feeling of an evolving fantasia with great subtlety of ebb and flow. Julian Rolton is a fine accompanist, staying supportively in the background most of the time but bringing forth the piano part when (as in the Arnold) it helps make the composer’s points clearer. This is a first-rate disc all around.

     The violin’s voice remains more often heard in a solo capacity than that of the viola, of course, and Gil Shaham’s own label, Canary Classics, exists in large part to promote it. The new Haydn-and-Mendelssohn CD, though, is stronger when Shaham steps a bit back from center stage than when he plants himself there. Shaham plays the two Haydn concertos quite well – neither is especially challenging for a first-class virtuoso, with No. 4 in particular being comparatively simple – but his playing is not especially idiomatic or involved; it sounds as if he knows he can handle this music easily, so that is just what he is doing. Haydn was not a great concerto composer (likely because he was not really a soloist-quality performer on any instrument), but the balance, poise and charm of his music is as apparent in his concertos as in everything else. Shaham’s playing is rather…well, charmless. Not so that of the Sejong Soloists, though. The 15 young musicians in this group play with care and delicacy, showing a stylishness that really comes to the fore in their performance of the Mendelssohn Octet. In fact, here, where Shaham is more a member of the group of eight than its front-and-center leader, everything sparkles. The ability of these musicians to play the Scherzo both very quickly and very softly is just remarkable. The sense of ensemble is palpable, and the music flows with ease and naturalness from start to finish. There is tremendous transparency in Mendelssohn’s string writing here, and every player is essentially exposed at all times. Shaham and the Sejong Soloists’ members make the Octet fleet, exuberant and thoroughly youthful – a winning performance from start to finish.

     In Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, the solo voice is, of course, a solo human voice; and this too is a youthful work, dating to 1823, when Schubert was 26. Of course, since Schubert died at 31, it can be said that all his works are youthful, but in this case, it is not only the age of the composer but also the age and attitudes of the protagonist of Wilhelm Müller’s poems that stamp the song cycle as filled with the passions of youth and love. The sentiments of the work are thoroughly Romantic, including the humanization of nature, the preoccupation with color, and above all the intertwining of love and death that were hallmarks of the time. Ideally, Die schöne Müllerin requires a voice that expresses tremendous passion (both positive and negative), with intensity until the resignation of the end – but at the same time is so finely controlled that Schubert’s gorgeous melodic lines get their full due. Konrad Jarnot is not, on this basis, perfectly suited for the song cycle, although he gets better and better as the music veers from initial exuberance and love of life into darker sentiments. For the first six songs, Jarnot sounds slightly breathy at the top of his range, and his expressiveness sometimes takes the form of what almost sounds like an attempt to whisper and project at the same time – an odd effect. He has difficulty connecting with the naïve emotionalism of lines such as, “O Bächlein meiner Liebe.” And the climax of the seventh song – the repeated line “Dein ist mein Herz” – is not as joyous as it can be. From then on, though, as things start to go wrong in the wandering poet’s love for the miller’s beautiful daughter, Jarnot becomes more effective. There is real tenderness in “Morgengruss,” dark foreboding in “Pause,” and strong anger in “Eifersucht und Stolz” (although the yearning in that song is less well conveyed). By the last two songs, when the poet tells the brook of his plans to drown himself and then, afterwards, the brook sings his body and unhappy soul to eternal peace, Jarnot has settled well into the comfortable portion of his range and offers a feeling of sweetness, gentleness and peace, with the rocking motion of the last song, “Das Baches Wiegenlied,” particularly well conveyed. Whatever reservations there may be about Jarnot’s performance do not apply to that of pianist Alexander Schmalcz, who is exemplary throughout, providing warmth, partnership, a fine sense of balance, and an accompaniment that moves seamlessly from bubbling happiness to intense anger and eventual pervasive sadness. This is, on balance, a very fine performance, even if it is not quite at the apex of emotional and musical expressiveness throughout. And it does have an irritation in packaging for English speakers: all the texts are included, even those of the Prologue and Epilogue, which are not recorded. But they are provided only in German.

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