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William PRIMROSE (1904-1982)
Viola Transcriptions

Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887) Nocturne
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Litany for All Soul’s Day
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Notturno Op.42 (arr. from Serenade, Op.8)
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Träume (Wesendonck Lieder, No.5)
Julian AGUIRRE (1868-1924)/Jascha Heifetz (1900-1987) Huella
Edgar Daniele del VALLE (1861-1920)/Jascha Heifetz (1900-1987) Ao Pé da Fogueira
Nicolò PAGANINI (1782-1840) La Campanella (from Violin concerto No.2)
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959) Bachianas Brasileiras No.5
Georges BIZET (1838-1875) Adagietto from L’Arlésienne Suite No.1
Efrem ZIMBALIST (1889-1985) Sarasateana
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) None but the lonely heart
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Wie Melodien zieht es mir, Op.105 No.1
Roberto Díaz (viola)
Robert Koenig (piano)
rec. Glenn Gould Studio, CBC Toronto, Canada,  8-10 November 2004
NAXOS 8.557391 [65.30]
 

William Primrose, after Lionel Tertis, is one of the great names associated with the viola, an instrument long regarded as an also-ran in the string family, overshadowed by the technical virtuosity of its smaller violin sister and the larger full-bodied sound of brothers cello and bass. Primrose was not above a put-down himself, the title of his autobiography, Cinderella no more, makes the point. So does his epithet elevating the viola from its ‘dull dog of the string family’ by making these transcriptions to ‘set the cat among the pigeons’, in other words his viola-playing colleagues. Choosing Paganini’s La Campanella as one of them says it all and sets them the highest standards to achieve.
 
This is a highly satisfying disc; Roberto Díaz is a marvellous player, his accompanist Robert Koenig no less so, and the wide variety of music makes it sheer pleasure to listen to. The real hero of the cd, however, is the instrument, Primrose’s own and since 2002 in Díaz’s possession. Made about 1600 by Antonio and Hieronymus Amati, it was Primrose’s primary instrument until about 1950, after which it was sold, eventually gifted to the Philadelphia Orchestra, where Díaz as its principal violist, bought it. According to Primrose the instrument had poor powers of projection and a wolf tone (regularly producing a whistle on one note), so it was fully restored and found to have been repaired on various occasions over the centuries. Apparently the new sound was virtually unrecognisable and one wonders if Primrose ever heard its full potential. He would surely have loved to have it still in his possession today if he could have heard this disc, but as Díaz’s father Manuel was a Primrose pupil, so this lovely story seems to have come full circle with a happy ending.
 
Of the playing, having praised it to the skies, there is little to say, for most of the music will be familiar to listeners. Primrose favoured works from the song repertoire (five of them here), though he also had an especial love for the music of South America where he toured with the London String Quartet, the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini, and then as a soloist. As Primrose himself points out, ‘transcriptions have been grist to the mill of instrumentalists and composers, Bach a prime example of one who liberally helped himself to the confections of his contemporaries. In my own case I have never had an original thought in my head in the matter of musical composition, while I have flattered myself that I am a likely lad when it comes to picking other men’s brains’. This seems another viola put down, for if they are not the butt of jokes, they behave as those bearing huge inferiority complexes. No more, for if they can play like this, they should dispel any such thoughts.
 
Christopher Fifield
 

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