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Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Sonata for viola and pianoforte (1933) [25:38]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Sonata for viola and piano (1921-22) [26:14]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Suite for viola and pianoforte (1934) [23:34]
Christian Euler (viola), Paul Rivinius (piano)
rec. 18-20 September 2012, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany. DDD

The viola has long been overshadowed by the violin and cello, but its soulful tones have inspired composers such as Mozart, Brahms and Berlioz. More recently the British violist Lionel Tertis transformed the faintly dowdy image of the instrument, and inspired the leading composers of his generation to write new works for it. The sonatas by Bliss and Bax and the Suite by Vaughan Williams were all written for Tertis. They may all have been written within a relatively short time, but have more than enough variety to form a satisfying recital programme. They are played on this disc by the German violist Christian Euler and pianist Paul Rivinius. 

Bliss’s Sonata begins in rather a restless mood and the first movement feels quite closely argued. Euler has a mellow and homogeneous tone, with a full but not overly fruity mid-range. The second movement shows off the viola’s capacity to unspool a long melody, something that is enhanced by Euler’s smooth bowing and sensitive phrasing. The finale is a vigorous moto perpetuo with some quite demanding chordal writing. Rivinius impresses as an accompanist with his attractive tone and capacity to play in support of Euler, or take the lead, as the music dictates. This recording is a bit more leisurely than Emanuel Vardi and Katherine Sturrock on Chandos, who get through it a couple of minutes quicker than Euler/Rivinius.
The first movement of the Sonata by Arnold Bax mixes faux-folk song style material with Brahmsian two-against-three rhythms. The following Allegro energico features more syncopated rhythms, building to a climax with overtones of Shostakovich. After a declamatory flourish, the finale settles into a contemplative dialogue with some rather French-sounding harmonies. Again Euler and Rivinius play this more broadly than the comparison, this time Outram and Rolton on Naxos, who take only 22:40 as against 26:14.
The suite by Vaughan Williams is probably more familiar in its viola and orchestra apparel; the version with piano accompaniment was arranged by the composer. This work (and Flos Campi) suggest that Vaughan Williams was rather intrigued by the viola’s ability to sound either contemplative or aggressive. The structure of the Suite, with its eight short movements, allows it to show off all sides of the instrument’s personality. Euler is well up to its technical and interpretive challenges, with the slow sections in particular being beautifully shaped. In this work the German duo are some two minutes quicker than Tina Louise Cayouette and Marianne Patenaude on Centaur. Euler’s intonation is much more secure than Cayouette’s, whose bowing also sounds rather laboured, particularly in the Prelude.
Christian Euler is professor of viola and chamber music at the University of Graz. As such one would expect him to have an extremely sound technique, and he certainly delivers on that score. His duo playing with Paul Rivinius is secure both in terms of their partnership, and in their grasp of the supposedly “elusive” English style … or rather, styles; each of these composers has very much his own voice. MDG specialises in recordings that do not resort to artificial reverb or any other sonic trickery. This one showcases both instruments effectively, and the piano reproduction is particularly realistic and attractive.  

Guy Aron