Carl STAMITZ (1745-1801)
Viola Concerto No 1 in D [22:11]
Franz Anton HOFFMEISTER (1754-1812)
Viola Concerto in D [20:47]
Viola Concerto in B flat [20:55]
Victoria Chiang (viola)
Baltimore Chamber Orchestra/Markand Thakar
rec. 5-6, 18-19 May, 2009, Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College, Towson, Maryland, USA
NAXOS 8.572162 [63:53]
The main attraction here will be the fact that, in the classical era, the viola was not a frequently-used solo instrument. Until the twentieth century and composers like Bartók, Walton, Hindemith, Pettersson and Bloch, the viola concerto repertoire is remarkably thin: two concertos by Franz Hoffmeister and a series by Carl, Anton and Johann Stamitz from the classical period, Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a nearly-forgotten concerto for viola and clarinet by Max Bruch, and two large-scale virtuoso works by York Bowen and Cecil Forsyth, played by Lawrence Power on a fascinating Hyperion CD.
The concertos themselves are elegant classical creations, worthy examples of the era of Mozart and Haydn without ever really challenging the ears, or the supremacy of that duo. The solo instrument is the primary appeal: Stamitz and Hoffmeister clearly have an affection for the viola and an understanding of what it can do as a soloist. The stereotype of the viola as a sad instrument fit for mourning or bitter emotional episodes, the way it was typecast by composers as different as Walton and Brahms, is not at all in evidence here: all three concertos are in major keys and all three demonstrate the instrument to be a versatile and interesting star.
Hoffmeister is especially free with his soloist: the viola gets an extended solo in the adagio of the concerto in D, and in the B flat adagio sings nearly from start to finish a melody which weaves up and down across the registers. There are challenging double-stops and good tunes in every movement. Stamitz, on the other hand, adds resonant clarinets to the wind section and seems, especially in the first movement and its epic cadenza, to be working on a slightly bigger scale than Hoffmeister’s serenade-like works. Strikingly, the Stamitz slow movement briefly features the soloist in duet with the orchestral viola section.
These are not period-instrument or particularly period-informed performances; they use tasteful vibrato and contemporary strings. The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra is up to all its demands, Markand Thakar is a steady hand at the helm, and Victoria Chiang, professor at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, makes for a superb soloist, with no second thoughts about what technical demands there are and with the richness of tone necessary to really “sell” the viola as solo instrument.
For those who enjoy this - and those who listen no doubt will - more of the Stamitz family’s viola concertos are available on a Supraphon disc, and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Thakar, and Chiang last year collaborated on an intriguing disc of concertante works by Ignaz Pleyel, who was very roughly a contemporary of Beethoven. The Pleyel album comes with a downloadable bonus track which extends the playing time to 90+ minutes, though if you acquire it as a download there’s no extra step. If you have either of those two discs, this is a logical next step, and a happy one too.
As a part of the Naxos Digital line, this album is currently only available for download at the website Classicsonline, where it sells for rather less than the price of a physical compact disc. Other download retailers, like eMusic and iTunes, stock it as well. Naxos informs me that a standard CD is schedules for July 2011.
If you like classical-era viola concertos, I’ve got good news for you.