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Lillian FUCHS (1902-1995)
Complete Music for Unaccompanied Viola
Sixteen Fantasy Studies (1959) [42:10]
Sonata Pastorale for Unaccompanied Viola (1956) [12:04]
Fifteen Characteristic Studies for Viola (1965) [32:25]
Twelve Caprices for Viola (1950) [26:20]
Jeanne Mallow (viola)
rec. 17-21 July, 27-29 September 2003, St. John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Ontario, Canada
NAXOS 8.557932-33 [54:14 + 58:46]

 

 

This is the second collection of studies for stringed instrument I’ve received recently. The first was an integral recording of Rodolphe Kreutzer’s violin studies, the review of which should be showing up on this site soon.

The present studies for viola are by American violinist and teacher Lillian Fuchs, who taught, as the liner-notes indicate, at some of the top conservatories in America: the Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, to name but two. Fuchs’s siblings made their marks on music, with one brother a long-standing cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra and another brother a well-known teacher of violin at Juilliard. As a performer, Lillian generated enough intensity and fire to inspire works from composers such as Martinů, who composed his Madrigals for her and her brother Joseph.

Of the four works presented here, it could be argued that only one was originally intended for public performance. The Etudes, Studies and Caprices were composed specifically to address various difficulties and technical points. They are of varying degrees of difficulty ranging from the more elementary aspects addressed by the Characteristic Studies up to the difficult Caprices composed in 1950.

In comparison with the Kreutzer studies I mentioned earlier (Kalan CD 377), these have less of an atmosphere of the practice room, save for the opening Fantasy Etude on disc one, which pursues its runs through various keys. The pieces are accessible, if of varying degrees of depth. A standout is the fourteenth fantasy etude, with a weeping melody line, meltingly played by Jeanne Mallow.

Disc One closes with the Sonata Pastorale for Unaccompanied Viola of 1956. Here the tonality is more challenging and modern; the opening movement certainly holds interest, and bears less of a similarity to Bartók than to the string music Shostakovich was to compose throughout the sixties and early seventies. The second movement, from which the sonata takes its name, shows a great sensitivity — the writing shows the sonority of the viola and Mallow brings out these darker tones beautifully. It is here that one feels an alignment most strongly to the sound-world of Shostakovich. The ending movement has certain whiffs of the Shostakovich first violin concerto, and even though it lacks the icy grandeur of that piece, of the works here, the Sonata Pastorale holds the greatest allure for this reviewer.

Disc two opens with the easiest of the study piece series, the Characteristic Studies. These show more of a tendency toward repeating figures up and down the scale, but resist sounding like finger exercises. The second of these, marked allegretto, moves swiftly and darkly through the middle range of the instrument. The mournful Andante that follows is a lovely melody that stands up to repeated listening.

The Caprices hold varying challenges with regard to bowing and double and triple stops. The second study is a quietly intense two minutes that are a pleasure to hear, and the difficulty of the 6th study is readily apparent, with its constant double-stopping and drones under a swift melody.

Mallow’s tone is good, and the recording aesthetic is close, but with a sense of acoustic that gives enough ambience to complement the playing. As mentioned, the depth of some of the pieces varies, and for me the Fantasy etudes are more uneven than the others. I rather enjoy the Sonata Pastorale and the Caprices and would appreciate seeing further performances of these pieces being made available.

David Blomenberg

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