As all good composers know and appreciate, the viola is not a second-rate violin useful only as an inner voice in orchestra or string quartet. Like comparing an Ocelot with a domestic cat, the viola is a very different animal. Reproduced on the cover of this disc, Ligeti’s quote about its tone qualities having “a unique acerbity, compact, somewhat hoarse, with an aftertaste of wood, earth and tannic acid” sum up this individual quality as well as any other description to which I could point.
This modern recital is by its very nature a rather demanding listen, but Geneviève Strosser’s excellent playing is expressed in a recording which not only picks up every nuance, but even seems to reveal the gesture and physicality of the musicianship required to cope with the demands made by these works.
As a starter, Heinz Holliger’s Trema is an extended exercise in texture and intensity, with a slowly moving harmonic development disguised over a mad display of colour and gestural double-stopping and hyperactive bow work. The central work in this programme is from an entirely different world, György Ligeti exploring only the single low C-string of the viola in the first movement of his six-movement Sonate. The opening Hora lungâ uses microtones like folk-intervals or vice-versa, and is a meditative single line which rises towards an end in diffuse harmonics. As one might expect with Ligeti, uneven but logical sounding rhythmic patterns appear, the instrument always used idiomatically and quasi-folk like, almost transferable to the open fields in its dances and laments but still confronting us with a world of detailed and powerfully expressive musical language. The six-minute Fascar is the central movement which, written strictly in two parts, keeps our compass pointing towards the Balkans in its almost wilful resistance to conventional Western European cadence. Technical fireworks are on display in the Prestissimo con sordino, which is ‘at the limits of the playable.’ Poignant and sparing, the lonely tones of the Lamento are followed by a short Chaconne described by the composer as using the word’s original meaning, “a wild, exuberant dance in strongly accentuated ¾ time with an ostinato bass line.”
Franco Donatoni’s Ali begins with an unrelentingly cyclical ‘rondo’ of more or less dramatic figures, “exhausting material that is almost indifferent, indefinitely turned around, tracked and bothered” in the words of Martin Kaltenecker’s booklet notes. The second of the two movements is the more convincing, full of dashing layers and swift rough glissandi like words from a crowd: “what? who?” Helmut Lachenmann’s Toccatina was originally for violin, and it was apparently Geneviève Strosser who persuaded the composer that this piece would be playable on the viola. The language of the instrument is extended in the use of numerous unconventional but highly effective means and techniques, with an exploration of the viola which seems at times determined to break the will or identity of the instrument, going no further than scrapes and tapping on the strings and odd little sounds from the wood of the bridge or soundbox. Exploration of sonics is something also associated with Giancinto Scelsi with his aesthetic of celebrating sound, but the effects in Manto are as different as you could imagine. This piece is by a long way the old man of this collection, but sounds as modern as anything else on the disc with its abstract lines: notes singing and wailing but in a language we can’t really understand – in the final movement quite literally, as the player sings strangeness along with the strangeness of the viola.
This is a fascinating recital of some potent solos for the viola. Ligeti’s Sonate has top billing, but the other works in the programme also offer plenty of rich contemporary music pickings. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and you have to be prepared to enter a world of dissonance and straining strings as well as one of enigmatic mystery and complex intellectual stimulation. Once you are engaged as a listener this is however a recording which generates an electric atmosphere, and can be considered something of a reference for the works presented. None of the pieces here have much competition in the recorded catalogues, though there is a quite richly eloquent recording of the Ligeti Sonate by Antone Tamestit on the Ambroisie label AM111 which, coupled with Bach’s BWV 1004 Partita No.2, pits a nicely turned great Chaconne against Ligeti’s ‘wild dance’ and neatly sidesteps the other tricky repertoire if you seek to avoid it.