April 11, 2019
(++++) THE EVER-CHANGING VIOLA
Mozart: String Quintets Nos. 1-6 (complete). Klenke Quartett (Annegret Klenke and Beate Hartmann, violins; Yvonne Uhlemann, viola; Ruth Kaltenhäuser, cello); Harald Schoneweg, viola. Accentus Music. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Hindemith: Sonatas for Viola Solo (complete). Luca Ranieri, viola. Brilliant Classics. $11.99.
Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi: Tacit-Citat-ion and other works. Ravello. $14.99.
The fortunes of the viola have risen and fallen many times since the Baroque era, with more-recent centuries seeing its importance in the 18th, its diminution in stature in the 19th, and then its revival – thanks in large part to violist Lionel Tertis and the compositions created for him – in the 20th. It is interesting to consider some of the ways in which the viola, tuned a fifth lower than the violin (whose name means “little viola”), significantly changes the character of small-ensemble music. Mozart’s string quintets, less known than his string quartets, are a perfect case in point, as the Klenke Quartett shows in a series of picture-perfect performances on a new Accentus Music release. The six quintets fall more-or-less neatly into three groups: those in B-flat, K. 174, and C minor, K. 406, are earlier and less-exploratory pieces; those in C, K. 515, and G minor, K. 516, are a mature middle-to-late-period pair containing much exploratory material; and the two in D, K. 593, and E-flat, K. 614, show many of the characteristics of Mozart’s late music. All six quintets add a viola to the usual string quartet, and the effect is quite remarkable, giving even the early work in B-flat (1773) considerable additional warmth and heft when compared with Mozart’s quartets of the same time. The second quintet (1787) is interesting both in itself and because it is Mozart’s transcription of his Serenade No. 12, K. 388 – and sounds quite different indeed in the all-strings instrumentation with the heightened viola presence, compared with its original appearance as a work for wind octet. But it is the four later quintets that really show the power of including an additional viola and that, in fact, helped pave the way for later, Romantic music. The third and fourth quintets, with their C major/G minor home keys, both date to mid-1787 and point forward to the G minor/C major pairing of the later Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41. The quintet K. 515 directly influenced Schubert to write a quintet in the same key, although with two cellos rather than two violas: the parallels between the Mozart and Schubert are quite direct in the first movement, while the differences caused by the differing instrumentation make the two works fascinating to compare and to hear in close proximity. The quintet K. 516 is exceptional in many ways, with a Menuetto (placed second rather than third) that is far from danceable rhythmically and that has an intensity quite beyond what would be expected in such a movement in Mozart’s time; a slow and nearly depressing third movement that excited the admiration of Tchaikovsky for its emotional depth, emphasized partly through skillful viola writing; and a finale that begins even more slowly than the slow movement before launching into a more-typical upbeat presentation. The fifth quintet dates to 1790 and again has surprising pacing and depth in some movements: the first sandwiches an Allegretto between two Larghetto sections, then progresses to a second-movement Adagio that continues to emphasize the slow pace and deeper feeling made possible by use of the second viola; eventually the quintet ends with a bouncy, distinctly Haydnesque finale. The sixth quintet, K.614 (1791), is Mozart’s last major chamber work, returning to a more-traditional layout of movements and presenting its material with the elegance and refinement that are characteristic of Mozart. The Klenke Quartett’s three-CD set is especially successful in highlighting the distinctions among the quintets – which really do sound remarkably different from each other – while adhering closely and carefully to Mozart’s style and carrying it through all six pieces. One difficulty of performing these quintets is that there simply are no professional two-viola string quintets, which means a quartet needs to pick up an outside musician for these works, creating potential difficulties of integrating the outsider with the established string quartet. In that respect, the inclusion of violist Harald Schoneweg is a major plus for this recording: he has worked with the Klenke Quartett for many years and fits flawlessly into their excellent ensemble playing.
After Mozart, with the exception of occasional works such as Berlioz’ Harold in Italy, the viola declined in importance for a time, but when the viola did start coming back into favor in the 20th century, the result was some very interesting music indeed. Paul Hindemith, himself a fine violist (as was Mozart), went so far as to create four complex and difficult solo sonatas for viola: some 70 minutes of viola-only music in all. The sonatas are not part of a single group: they are Op. 11, No. 5 (1919); Op. 25, No. 1 (1922); Op. 31, No. 4 (1923); and the Sonata 1937. But when heard as a group, they give testimony to just how thoroughly Hindemith understood the viola and just how far he was able to expand its repertoire at a time when tonality had largely broken down and Romantic performance models were being extended constantly, or largely abandoned, on many instruments. Luca Ranieri offers all four of the Hindemith solo-viola sonatas on a new Brilliant Classics CD, which proves a tour de force for the performer – and can be a bit much for a listener to take in all at once (these works were never intended to be heard back-to-back). Hindemith’s complex and rather craggy style, and his insistence on putting the viola through many technical paces as well as expressive ones, combine to make this impressive recording at times a difficult one to hear: there is nothing “easy on the ears” about these sonatas. The earliest sonata points forward to Hindemith’s later extreme chromaticism without yet fully embracing it; the 1922 sonata, in contrast, is explicitly intended not to have Romantic-style beauty of sound, despite the viola’s capability of producing it – Ranieri does a particularly good job here of emulating Hindemith’s own approach to this sonata, using little vibrato or expressive technique and allowing the music to stand forth in all its starkness. The slightly later Op. 31, No. 4, exists in a similar sound world while challenging performer and listener alike with a finale packed with double stops. Sonata 1937 is the one of the four that most completely encapsulates Hindemith’s musical theories, from its extreme chromaticism, to its central section played without the bow, to its intimate and rather thin sound from an instrument capable in other music of evoking sound of great warmth and beauty. Hindemith’s viola sonatas, like his other music, will not be to all tastes, but anyone interested in the ways in which the viola re-emerged as a significant solo instrument in the 20th century will find them a crucial group to explore.
By the 21st century, the viola, having finally been re-accepted as an instrument of some importance, began to be used by contemporary composers as just another acoustic instrument whose range could be extended and whose sound could be played off against that of other instruments as well as electronics. A new (+++) Ravello CD of the music of Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi includes the viola in three works, two of them for string quartet: Wuthering Modes, Not Moods (2017), and the work that provides the CD’s title, Tacit-Citat-ion (2013/2018). The overly abstruse titles, of a type common in the works of some modern composers, are only one way in which Ahvenniemi intellectualizes music to a level well beyond even the one that Hindemith occupied. Both of these stretch and expand the musical material and the sounds of the quartet’s instruments, with the second (which, interestingly, was composed as a string quintet in 2013 and later re-composed for quartet) carrying additional intellectual freight through its title intended as a blend of “tacit knowledge” and academic “citation.” Neither piece has an especially distinctive sound – their titles could be swapped and their effects would be the same – but the third viola work on this disc, A Song for the Viola (2011), comes closer to the way in which many avant-garde composers like to use the instrument. This is a work “for viola and fixed media sound,” which means it is one of those pieces in which acoustic and electronic sounds are combined and interwoven. Ahvenniemi writes it in such a way that it is difficult to tell, much of the time, whether the sounds being created come from the viola or from an electronic source, and that seems to be much of the point: the equalization (no pun intended) of the traditional acoustic world and that of electronic sound generation. Also on this Ahvenniemi CD are two rather clever parodies and reinterpretations of classical singing: Dada-Aria (2016), in which the composer creates a polyglot language and has a mezzo-soprano sing it in operatic style; and L’Operette d’Amour (2014), for soprano, percussion and electronics, a rather silly hodgepodge that barely gets started when it stops (it runs just over half a minute). The remaining pieces here are more straightforward within their genres, or genre-bendings. They include the all-electronic Winds (2016); Herz Beim Spinnrade (2013) for soprano and prepared piano, which drags a Schubert lied somewhat harshly onto the contemporary musical scene; Ode to a Tree (2016) for clarinet and electronics; Lucia (2009) for piccolo flute and electronics; Barnet som blev osynligt (2013) for female voice, percussion and electronics, which tries to communicate the effects of a story about a girl who, after constant putdowns, fades away into invisibility; and the amusingly titled Banalala (2014), for voice and electronics, which combines quotations from J.G. Ballard with sounds intended to convey the impression made by a city area rebuilt to try to combine functionality and aesthetics. The intellectual trappings of the various works on the disc are far clearer than the musical material used to convey the ideas – not even the viola, alone or in combination with other instruments, is used in a way commensurate with its inherent tonal qualities and communicative abilities. Ahvenniemi simply joins many other 21st-century composers in a determination to bend music (and electronic sounds) into the service of a world of thoughts and concepts.