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The Elegant Viola
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Suite for viola and orchestra [26:11]
Johann Sebastian BACH (transc. Kodály) Fantasia Cromatica for unaccompanied viola [7:44]
Wilhelm Friedeman BACH Sonata in C minor for viola and harpsichord [14:21]
Michael COLGRASS Variations for four drums and viola [18:08]
Yizhak Schotten (viola)
Slovak Radio Orchestra/Kirk Trevor
Carole Terry (harpsichord)
Frank Epstein (percussion)
rec. no details given

The Vaughan Williams Suite for viola and orchestra is made up of a mosaic of eight short movements. It was premiered in 1934 when Lionel Tertis was the soloist with the orchestra at the Queen’s Hall conducted by Malcolm Sargent. There were two recordings during the LP era - the first on Pye Golden Guinea with Robert Starer as the soloist and the second being on RCA (and then Chandos) from Frederick Riddle with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta conducted by Norman Del Mar. This is now available on a Chandos twofer: CHAN 241-9.[review] The Chandos is ADD from circa 1977; the Pye from circa 1966.

This Crystal recording is the first full digital recording of the Suite whose nine movements are in three groups: Group 1: Prelude, Carol, Christmas Dance; Group 2: Ballad, Moto perpetuo; Group 3: Musette, Polka mélancolique, Galop.

There is little to choose in timing between Schotten and Riddle. Schotten has more vinegary intense rosin in his tone than Riddle and he is recorded very closely. The sound for Riddle is slightly more natural in effect but he is balanced reticently and registers with less presence. Riddle’s viola is more of the still small voice - for example in the Musette. Riddle is not as gutty and gutsy as Schotten in the livelier movements.

The Suite has many lovely moments and in its grace, variation and beauty can be compared with another oft-dismissed work: Finzi's Five Bagatelles. After a lovely chanting Prelude comes a Carol whose melody lacks the distinction of Vaughan Williams' best. It is however most beautifully done. The Christmas Dance has that sweet combination of resiny wormwood and fruity song (00.38). The music skips like My Pretty Bess from Five Tudor Portraits. The Ballad sings of Cotswold sun-warmed afternoons and of High Bredon; by the way, how long before someone records Julius Harrison's Bredon Hill for violin and orchestra. Ballad is a lovely movement as remarkable as the Prelude. The Moto Perpetuo is trickily busy and as patterned as the Concerto Accademico and the Holst Double Violin Concerto. Musette is unassuming and a little nondescript. Though again the treatment is lovely it leaves little trace after it is finished. The Polka Mélancolique is a superb confection: part gawky and part troubadour Aubade. The Galop has the chase-and-catch-me feeling of the Seasongs and of parts of The Poisoned Kiss and I mun be married a Sunday from Sir John in Love. Schotten and Trevor with his Slovak orchestra deliver a superb performance that has me hoping that with a violinist collaborator they will soon turn to Arthur Benjamin’s Overture, Elegy and Waltz (viola and orchestra); Violin Concerto and the Romantic Fantasy for violin, viola and orchestra - the perfect coupling.

The flighty witchery of Kodaly's transcription of Bach's Fantasia Cromatica sounds well in this company. It is not at all precious or Dresden china delicate. In fact it bursts the emotional bounds of Bach's protestant adherence. Wilhelm Friedeman (1710-1784) was the eldest of Bach's twenty children. His life has been described as the melancholy spectacle of a ruined genius. This music shows a Mozartian grace and this is lent a large scale by a recording that moves unflinchingly close to the viola and the Carole Terry’s harpsichord. As in the Fantasia Cromatica there are moments when it is as if there is an orchestra there.

Chicagoan Michael Colgrass worked as a percussionist in jazz ensembles, concert orchestras, opera and ballet. He was instrumentalist in the original production of Bernstein's Westside Story and in the Stravinsky conducts Stravinsky project on CBS-Sony, now BMG. Colgrass wrote the Variations for Four Drums and viola for violist Emanuel Vardi. It was premiered at the Five Spot Cafe in New York City in 1957. There is a an introduction, five variations and a finale. Frank Epstein uses four small shallow drums tuned to cover the harmonics between C and E flat. Rototoms were also used. None of the instruments are used in a way that does any violence to their natural voice. The viola sings and chants, chases, hectors and invokes. The combination of viola and percussion works exceptionally well. This is in fact a traditional work with a restrained infusion of Bartók alongside Prokofiev and Walton.

This is a varied viola anthology that works extremely well.

Rob Barnett



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