Music for Viola and Piano
Bohuslav MARTINů (1890-1959)
Sonata for Viola and Piano, H 355 [14:27]
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Adagio [8:46]
Erno DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Sonata in C sharp minor, Op 21 (arr. Sarah-Jane Bradley) [18:24]
Joseph JOACHIM (1831-1907)
Hebrew Melodies, “Impressions of Byron’s Poems” Op 9 [17:09]
George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Concertstück [8:46]
Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola); Anthony Hewitt (piano)
rec. 24-25 July, 2008, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, UK
NAXOS 8.572533 [67:32]

The line-up, on paper, looks mouthwatering: five eastern European composers with strong connections to the folk music of their homelands, and distinctive personal styles of their own. Bohuslav Martinů of the Czech Republic; Zoltán Kodály and Erno Dohnányi of Hungary; Georges Enescu of Romania; the German Joseph Joachim, an avid folklorist who arranged Brahms’ Hungarian Dances for violin and piano and composed a titanic violin concerto “In the Hungarian Style”. For some reason, though, the works here occasionally disappoint; the viola has a reputation for dourness and dryness which these composers sadly do not help to defeat.

The performances, at any rate, are excellent. Violist Sarah-Jane Bradley enlivens Martinů’s viola sonata with a keen ear for both the unsteady emotional balance - there are slightly ugly moments of pizzicato strumming - and the occasional episodes (as at 2:00 in the final allegro) of simple melodic reassurance. Accompanist Anthony Hewitt is unusually assertive, as he needs to be, for there is an impressive cadenza for him to navigate. Kodály’s Adagio is an early work, exhibiting little of the composer’s later-celebrated devotion to folk melody. Instead it sounds a bit like a Brahms adagio, with a bit of a hymnal atmosphere, and only the slightest betrayal of folk influence in a tiny but flamboyant viola solo near the end.

Erno von Dohnányi’s sonata - originally for violin and arranged by Bradley; it had been played on viola a century ago by Lionel Tertis - begins with an “allegro appassionato” that really comes across as the most tender, beautiful track on the disc, especially with playing as poetic as this. The next two movements are more vigorous, including a finale which begins dancing but winds down to a heart-melting finish. The three Hebrew Melodies by Joseph Joachim, by contrast, are seventeen minutes of mostly slow music, and though they don’t really sound too Jewish to my ears (not in the style of, say, Bloch), they are touched with Joachim’s lyrical breadth and sense of fantasy. The disc concludes with Enescu’s Concertstück, a competition piece which fuses winning tunes and high virtuosity for the violist.

The sound is close and maybe somewhat dry, as if in a small room; Bradley’s viola is clearly in the left channel and Hewitt’s piano is on the right. Bradley has written her own informative booklet note. If I don’t seem enthusiastic, it’s not for any lack of quality in the production or performances; it’s just that, though I liked the Dohnányi and the Kodály, some of the other elements of this program are harder to enjoy than they are to respect.

Brian Reinhart

Good performances of rather introspective music.