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September 20, 2013

The Best Works for Viola (Music review)

Since the 18th c., the viola has been the middle or "alto" voice of the violin family, positioned between the violin and the cello. Compared to the violin, which has the same basic construction, the viola is slightly larger in size; it is also heavier, strung with thicker and less responsive strings. This results in a mellower, deeper, richer and warmer sound. In fact, it is a very particular sound, with a dusky luminescence about it. The player of the viola is called a violist, in contrast to "violinist" which is used for violin players.

Many of the greatest composers, including Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, played themselves the viola in preference to the violin. The viola was popular in the Baroque and Classical period, when hundreds of concertos were written for it. The three major concertos from the Classical period are those by Stamitz, Hoffmeister and the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola by Mozart. Although in ensembles it was originally an instrument that only filled out the harmony, Mozart liberated the viola in his six string quintets where he gave it many solo passages.

In the Romantic period, the viola suffered the same fate as the oboe (and, initially, the cello): the craze for (often empty) virtuoso concertos led to a dominance of the piano and - in a smaller way - the violin. But Berlioz wrote his Harold in Italy with the viola as solo instrument; Schumann the Marchenbilder for Viola and Piano; and also in Brahms' music the viola plays an important role, both in ensemble music and in the sonatas Op. 120 which Brahms himself transcribed from clarinet for viola. Finally, Richard Strauss used the viola in his tone poem Don Quixote for the character of Sancho Panza.

It is in the 20th century that the viola finally again comes into its own - four influential performers, Lionel Tertis, Paul Hindemith, William Primrose and Yuri Bashmet have promoted their instrument and made composers recognize its worth. In the past hundred years many major composers have written concertos or chamber works for the viola. The three most famous viola concertos from the 20th c. are those by Bartok, Hindemith and Walton. Other important viola composers include Bliss, Bowen, Dale, Bloch, Clarke, Rosza, Frankel and Schnittke, to name only a few. Hindemith, Dale and Clarke were themselves viola players.

Here are some of my favorite works for the viola:

1. Georg Philipp Telemann, Concerto for Viola and Strings in G major, TWV 51:G9 [1716-1721]
One of Telemann's most famous concertos, and one of the earliest concertos written for the viola. The concerto is in four movements. It starts with a simple and mellow Largo, featuring a "sighing" melody, where the viola plays in its lower register with its rich timbres; the next Allegro begins with a distinctive syncopated figure, which also recurs later - its is an elegant and pleasing movement; the Andante is mainly played on the upper strings of the viola and brings a sorrowful melody; and the finale is a fast and exuberant Presto. Besides this solo concerto, Telemann also wrote a concerto for two violas.
Recording listened to:  Florian Deuter, viola, with Musica Antiqua Köln conducted by Reinhard Goebel on Archiv (with concerto for two violas etc). Authentic instruments and playing style.

2. Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Viola d'Amore in D major, RV 392 [1724 or later]
The viola d'amore was an instrument popular in the 18th c. which in size resembled the viola, but which usually had twelve strings. Half of these strings were for playing on with the bow, as they ran over fingerboard and bridge, the others ran under these and provided sympathetic resonances. "Sympathetic strings" or "resonance strings" are auxiliary strings that are also found on many Indian musical instruments and a variety of worldwide folk instruments. They are not played directly by the performer, only indirectly through the tones that are played on the main strings, based on the principle of sympathetic resonance, usually in unison with or an octave lower or higher than the catalyst note. Telemann, Biber, Handel and J.S. Bach wrote for the viola d'amore (Bach used it in a bass arioso in the St. John Passion), but Vivaldi, who was familiar with it from a young age, wrote six solo concertos for it, as well as a chamber concerto and a concerto together with the lute (the popular RV 540). RV 392 is an exuberant piece in the major key (four out of his six viola d'amore concertos are in the minor key), which amply displays the special qualities of the viola d'amore.
Recording listened to: Catherine Mackintosh, viola d'amore and director, with The Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment on Hyperion. Authentic instruments and playing style. 

3. Carl Philipp Stamitz, Concerto in D major, Op. 1 [1773]
Carl Stamitz (1745 – 1801) was the most prominent representative of the second generation of the Mannheim School. He was the eldest son of Johann Stamitz; his brother Anton was also a prolific composer. Stamitz wrote extensively for the viola - he himself played the instrument as well as the viola d'amore: we have three concertos, two sinfonias concertante in which the viola is featured; a sonata; and 36 duos for violin and viola. The Concerto in D major is a large-scale work with impressive solo writing. To realize a warm tone color, the orchestration calls for clarinets rather than oboes and the violas have been divided in two parts. Stamitz has realized a great sensuous beauty in this concerto.  
Recording listened to: Victoria Chiang, viola, with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, directed by Markand Thakar on Naxos (with viola concertos by Hoffmeister)

4. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach / Johann Gottlieb Graun, Sonata for Obbligato Keyboard and Viola in C minor 
This sonata has come down to us in two different manuscripts, one attributed to Johann Gottlieb Graun (1703-1771), the other associating it with Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710 – 1784). As WF Bach wrote no other sonatas for obbligato keyboard, Graun may be the more likely composer, but stylistically the sonata contains aspects that agree with the styles of both WF Bach and Graun. If the work is by WF Bach it could have been written in his late years in Berlin as an emulation of the style of Graun, who had been his teacher. Whoever the composer may be, the sonata is a charming work with an unusual movement cycle of slow-fast-fast.
Recording listened to: Nobuko Imai, viola, and Ronald Pontinen, harpsichord, on Philips (with sonatas by J.S. Bach and C.P.E. Bach)

[Hummel - Image Wikipedia]

5. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Sonata in E flat major for Viola and Pianoforte Op. 5 No. 3 [1798]
The composer and virtuoso pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 – 1837) was a pupil of Mozart. When Hummel was eight years of age, Mozart took him in his house and taught him free of charge. In this way, Hummel became the core person to bring Mozart's style of piano playing into the 19th century. Hummel's own music - today unjustly forgotten - was mainly for the piano but also includes many interesting chamber music works (piano trios, two septets, etc.), concertos for other instruments than the piano, such as the trumpet and mandolin, and more than 20 operas. The present viola sonata is an early work and therefore not surprisingly shows a strong Mozartian influence. It opens with a jaunty theme; the Adagio cantabile resembles a slow march, above which the viola sings expressively; and the Rondo concludes this pleasant work with the usual bustle.
Recording listened to: Anna Barbara Duetschler, viola, and Ursula Duetschler, fortepiano on Claves (with viola sonatas by Stamitz, Dittersdorf and Vanhal)

6. Benjamin Dale, Suite for Viola and Piano, Op. 2 [1906]
The English composer and academic Benjamin James Dale (1885 – 1943) had a long association with the Royal Academy of Music. From an early age, Dale showed talent for composition and went on to create a small but interesting corpus. Among these are three chamber works for the viola, most notably the three movement Suite for Viola and Piano, first performed in 1906 by renowned violist Lionel Tertis and the pianist/composer York Bowen. It is a viola sonata in all but name, an ambitious work that stretched the boundaries of viola technique at the time. A highly entertaining and excellent piece that deserves to be better known.
Recording listened to: Simon Rowland-Jones, viola, and Niel Immelman, piano, on Etcetera (music for viola and piano by Dale).

[Charles Koechlin - photo Wikipedia]

7. Charles Koechlin, Sonata for Viola and Piano [1913-1915]
Charles Louis Eugène Koechlin (1867 – 1950) was a French composer, teacher and writer on music. He was a pupil of Fauré, who had a major influence on Koechlin. Koechlin was very prolific, and also highly eclectic - he was inspired by such diverse elements as the Orient, French folk songs, choral music by Bach and Hollywood movies. He developed an expressive language that was all his own. He wrote symphonies (the Seven Stars Symphony, inspired by Hollywood), symphonic poems (a cycle after The Jungle Book) and many pieces of chamber music. The sonata for viola and piano is one of Koechlin's most dramatic works. It is a dark and intimate piece of music, called "The Human Complaint" by Koechlin in his autobiography. There are four movements: a calm adagio; a bitter scherzo; a meditative andante; and a sombre and plaintive finale. Most of the sonata was written under the impression of the Great War, where Koechlin worked as hospital attendant.
Recording listened to: Michel Michalakakos, viola, and Martine Gagnepain, piano, on Skarbo (with Koechlin's violin sonata)

8. Ernest Bloch, Suite for Viola and Orchestra [1919]
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was a 20th-century Swiss-born American composer. He studied with Eugène Ysaÿe in Brussels, and settled in the U.S. in 1916, where he was active as teacher at various conservatories and universities, mostly on the West Coast. Bloch had a Jewish background; although he wrote several works with Jewish inspiration, he was also influenced by Gregorian chant and Renaissance music, Chinese music and the neo-classical style. Bloch wrote four viola works, all chamber music, although he himself reworked the 1918 Coolidge Prize-winning Suite for Viola and Piano into an exotic orchestra version. The four movement suite is one of the twentieth century's most important works for the viola, a romantic view of East Asia. The work is in four movements. The opening movement portrays wild and primitive nature; this is followed by a sardonic scherzo; the third movement is a sort of night music, "a nighttime journey through Javanese villages from which can be heard the distant sound of musical instruments"; and the final movement reveals the interest Bloch developed in Chinese music.
Recording listened to: Hong-Mei Xiao, viola, with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mariusz Smolij on Naxos.

[Rebecca Clarke with viola
- photo Wikipedia]

9. Rebecca Clarke, Sonata for Viola and Piano [1919]
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) was born in England to an American father and German mother. After her musical studies with Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music, she pursued a career as performer on both violin and viola. She moved to the United States in 1916. Her viola sonata was composed for the Berkshire, Massachusetts Music Festival. The three movement work is in a late romantic, rather chromatic style. The opening movement is full of passion; the middle movement playful, with pizzicato effects; and the finale, after opening with a dreamy adagio, displays much festive energy and ends with a display of virtuosity for both the viola and the piano.
Recording listened to: Thomas Riebl, viola, and Cordelia Hoefer, piano, on Pan Classics (with viola sonatas by Hindemith and Bloch)

10. Granville Bantock, Sonata in F major for Viola and Piano, "Colleen" [1920]
The English composer Sir Granville Bantock 1868 – 1946) studied at the Royal College of Music and worked as conductor in Brighton and Liverpool. Later he was Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, where he also helped found the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. His symphonic music was influenced by folk song of the Hebrides as well as Celtic legend, and also by a certain element of exoticism. Since the 1990s, there has been a revival of his forgotten music on CD. Bantock wrote two viola sonatas, of which the first one is a large-scale work, clocking in at well over 30 minutes. It is a robust but also lyrical sonata of a rhapsodic nature. The "Colleen" of the title refers to the Irish folk song "Colleen Dhas," one of the melodies used in the 3rd movement. In the first movement a four-note motif reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier is almost obsessively manipulated. The next maestoso begins in a melancholy way and contains an allusion to the Dies Irae. The finale provides a change of mood in the form of a vivacious Irish jig, after which follows the above mentioned folk tune of "Colleen Dhas," ending the sonata on a high-spirited note.
Recording listened to: Sarah-Jane Bradley, viola, and Christian Wilson, piano, on Naxos (with viola sonatas by Bainton and Holland).

[Paul Hindemith - photo Wikipedia]

11. Paul Hindemith, Kammermusik No. 5, op. 36 no. 4, "Viola Concerto" [1925]
The German composer Paul Hindemith (1895 - 1963) is one of the most important representatives of twentieth-century music. He was a violinist who later switched to the viola - in 1921 he founded the Amar Quartet, in which he played the viola. In 1923 Hindemith became organizer of the Donaueschingen Festival where contemporary compositions were played - including his own, leading to a breakthrough for him as a composer. After the Nazis came to power, Hindemith emigrated to the U.S. and became an American citizen. He spent the last years of his life in Switzerland. Hindemith's production also includes important music-theoretical and pedagogical writings. Not surprisingly, he wrote extensively for the viola: four viola concertos (of which the most famous is Der Schwanendreher), four sonatas for viola solo and three sonatas for viola with piano. He often played his own viola works at recitals, further promoting his instrument. The Kammermusik No. 5, op. 36 no. 4, "Viola Concerto"  was Hindemith's first viola concerto and it is a fun piece from his "Neue Sachlichkeit" ("New Objectivity") period. It is an ebullient piece of music, in which the orchestra mainly consists of woodwind and brass, with only a few cellos and basses - a perfect blend of the joyful and the serious. Interestingly, in the same series of Kammermusiken Hindemith also wrote a concerto for viola d'amore - Hindemith played this antique instrument himself.
Recording listened to: Kim Kashkashian, viola, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra directed by Riccardo Chailly on London/Decca (complete Kammermusik by Hindemith)

12. William Walton, Viola Concerto [1929]
The English composer William Walton (1902-1983) was a slow worker and perfectionist, so his total body of music is small but fine. He wrote two symphonies and three concertos, one opera, various pieces of ballet music, chamber works, and film music. The viola concerto from 1929 (revised in 1962) is one of his best compositions and established Walton in the vanguard of contemporary English music. It was the first large-scale work of the young composer, written for the violist Lionel Tertis but first performed by Paul Hindemith (Tertis felt initially not comfortable with the modernist idiom). It is a lyrical work that is often deemed to owe a certain debt to Elgar's Cello Concerto. It opens reflectively, is in three movements (slow-fast-fast) and typically contrasts agitated and jagged passages with warmer romantic sections. The concerto has both emotional depth, a profusion of ideas and contrapuntal dexterity.
Recording listened to: Nigel Kennedy, viola, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn on EMI (with Walton's violin concerto)

13. Béla Bartók, Viola Concerto (completed by Tibor Serly)  [1949]
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was the foremost 20th c. Hungarian composer, who was also active as ethnomusicologist. In the late 1930s, he fled for the Nazis and spent the last five years of his life in the United States. These years saw a new flurry of activity, for example in the Third Piano Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra (1942), today Bartok's most famous work. The viola concerto was commissioned by William Primrose, and it literally became Bartok's swansong: when he died in 1945, he left only a draft consisting of the viola part and sketches for the orchestral part. The work was finished by the Hungarian-born composer, violist and conductor Tibor Serly (there is some controversy about Serly's version, and since the original manuscript was finally published in 1995, another version has also seen the light, involving Bartok's son; the differences are however relatively minor, and more a matter of overall flavor). In the Serly version, Bartok's viola concerto has become quite popular. The concerto consists of a serious Allegro, a Scherzo, a (rather short) slow movement, and a finale beginning Allegretto and developing the tempo to an Allegro molto. The first movement contains a phrase that is loosely reminiscent of a Scottish folk song, something probably done in honor of William Primrose.
Recording listened to: Davia Bender, viola, with the Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester Leipzig conducted by Herbert Kegel on Edel Records (with viola works by Hindemith and Meyer)

14. Frank Martin, Ballad for viola, wind, harp, harpsichord and percussion [1972]
Frank Martin (1890 – 1974) was a Swiss composer, who lived a large part of his life in the Netherlands. He was born in Geneva where he studied with Joseph Lauber. In 1926 Martin established the Chamber Music Society of Geneva which, for the next ten years, he conducted; he was also a teacher at the Geneva Conservatory. Martin developed his mature style based on a personal interpretation of Schoenberg's twelve tone technique, without wholly abandoning tonality. He has a preference for lean textures and rhythmic vehemence. Some of Martin's most inspired music comes from his last decade, when he lived in Naarden, The Netherlands (since 1946). The viola concerto (called "ballad," the term Martin used for a series of six short concertos) is written for a very individual combination of wind, brass, percussion, harp and harpsichord. This instrumental group is at first used sparingly, but after a while typical Martinesque climaxes begin to intrude. Later on we also hear a section where the harp and harpsichord alone accompany a long viola solo, leading to an interesting sonority. The concerto ends with a sort of question mark in the lower brass. This is a forceful and impressive work.
Frank Martin website.
Recording listened to: Philip Dukes, viola, with The London Philharmonic conducted by Matthias Bamert on Chandos (all 6 ballads for soloist and orchestra by Martin)

[Portrait of Alfred Schnittke 
by Reginald Gray (1972) - Wikipedia]

15. Alfred Schnittke, Viola Concerto [1985]
Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998) was a Soviet composer whose early music showed a strong influence of Dmitri Shostakovich. His mature work is known for his - typically postmodern - polystylistic technique. In contrast, his late style is rather bleak and withdrawn. In the 1980s, Schnittke wrote three works for viola and orchestra; the first of these was the Viola Concerto from 1985, written for Yuri Bashmet. It is a desperate, bleak work filled with grotesque ironies. The concerto starts and ends with the musical signature of the name of its dedicatee. After a peroration by the viola in the short first movement, the second movement brings on the postmodern horses, in the form of a ghoulish waltz and Baroque style elements. The long final movement is contemplative. A stunning work, powerful and dramatic, that was written at the time Gorbachev came to power and artists, too, could have more freedom. One of the best viola concertos I have heard.
Recording listened to: Yuri Bashmet with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich on RCA Victor (with Thro Sonata by Schnittke)

16. Gia Kancheli, Mourned by the Wind, Liturgy for Viola and Orchestra [1988]
Gia Alexandrovich Kancheli (1935) is a Georgian composer, who since 1991 is resident in Western-Europe - now in Belgium. He was educated at the Georgian State Conservatory in Tbilisi and writes music in a very typical style that in the first place strikes listeners by its simplicity and meditative calmness. We also hear loud intonations by the full orchestra. Mourned by the Wind, for viola and orchestra, was composed in memory of a musicologist - Kancheli's fellow-Georgian Givi Ordzhonikidze. The work possesses a stark and haunting spirituality, with the viola set against both moments of stillness and passages of passionate declamation for the orchestra. It is music that in its meditative mood has a certain resemblance to other central European composers as Part and Gorecki, or the English composer Tavener.
Recording listened to:  Svyatoslav Belonogov, viola, with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fedor Glushchenko on Olympia (with Symphonies 1 & 7)

[Toru Takemitsu - Photo Wikipedia]

17. Toru Takemitsu, Viola Concerto "A String Around Autumn" [1989]
Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was Japan's greatest 20th c. composer. Takemitsu taught himself composition by studying French masters as Debussy and Messiaen. He also became interested in musique concrete, serialism and the compositional philosophy of John Cage, although his music was pan-tonal rather than atonal. Takemitsu also wrote extensively on aesthetics and music theory. He created a delicate sound world uniquely his own and composed hundreds of works - he first became famous with Requiem for Strings in 1957. Takemitsu also scored over ninety films, often famous art films as Harakiri, Woman in the Dunes, Kaidan and Double Suicide, by not only using music but also silence - as in his other compositions. The viola concerto was commissioned by the Festival d'Automne in Paris as part of the commemoration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution. The title was based on a poem by Makoto Ooka and refers both to the name of the festival and the fact that a string instrument is used. Takemitsu called the concerto an "imaginary landscape," the soloist functions as the observer of a gorgeous autumn scene (autumn, with its red leaves and clear blue skies, is always beautiful in Japan). The musical texture may also suggest the static perfection of a Japanese garden. Interestingly, Takemitsu also wrote concert music for traditional Japanese instruments, as the shakuhachi and the biwa.
Recording listened to: Nobuko Imai, viola, with the Saito Kinen Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa on Philips (with November Steps and Eclipse for shakuhachi and biwa).
Written with some information gleaned from the CD booklets, Wikipedia, etc. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)
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