The 'viola pomposa' was said to be J.S. Bach’s favourite instrument. It has always fascinated me as to why it should have come to be regarded as the butt of jokes. Turning to the internet I discovered that the origin seems to be down to a true story concerning the composer Francesco Geminiani who arrived in England in 1714. Apparently, according to Charles Burney, he had left Italy under a cloud following a disastrous time as leader of an orchestra in Naples where he was "so wild and unsteady ... that instead of regulating and conducting the band, he threw it into confusion", and was demoted to playing the viola. It seems incredible that the viola should come in for such derision because of that. Why, one might reasonably ask, should it have been considered a demotion to be given a viola to play rather than a violin. As the booklet-note writer here suggests, the impression could easily be drawn that composers only choose to give the viola a primary role when they want to imbue their music with special depth. It is strange then that relatively few works do so in comparison with the violin or cello. It may be that composers didn’t want to overdo the ‘special depth’ a viola can bring to a work and therefore some — perhaps especially violinists — might have regarded it as a less important instrument. This disc is full of music that flies in the face of all this fustian nonsense to reveal ‘special depth’ in abundance.
The first three works on the disc are by Max Reger whose music I generally regard as dry. With all the disparaging things written and said about the viola it is interesting that these viola works have led me to a reappraisal of Reger. These three suites are anything but dry: they are warm, rich, well rounded and highly tuneful. What is also surprising is that they sound as if they come from a much earlier time than that in which they were written. They seem to have much more in common with the 18th
century than the 19th
century. There is something very reminiscent of the Bach cello suites about these suites and I see that writer and broadcaster James Jolly agrees: “... the Reger suites have the same purity of utterance and spareness as the Bach originals ...” These lovely works well and truly changed my opinion about Reger. Martin Anderson writing in CD Review in the 1990s said that while many characterise his music as “heavy, overscored, chromatically complex or some other how unpalatable” these suites “offer untrammelled delight from beginning to end”. I couldn’t agree more.
Another composer I have been reappraising is Khachaturian who was the subject of a recent set of programmes on the UK’s Radio 3’s Composer of the Week
series. I was reminded during these five one hour long programmes what a highly skilled composer he was. His music is so thoroughly colourful that he was said to be the “Rubens of Russian music”. This Sonata-Song for solo viola
shows that to be as true in his writing for a solo instrument as it is in his orchestral writing. It was Khachaturian’s very last work giving it added poignancy alongside its complex nature.
Krzysztof Penderecki is often regarded as a somewhat ‘avant-garde’ composer so it is interesting to hear his Cadenza
immediately following Khachaturian’s work. It appears more accessible by comparison which only goes to prove that one should let the music do the talking. The ideas derive from his viola concerto and serve as an encouragement to seek that work out.
Pierre Rhode was a name that was unknown to me but the music is charming and would make a perfect encore bon-bon. Paganini’s famous Caprice
is the penultimate offering and it is interesting to hear it on the viola with its darker tone making for a completely new experience. Paganini’s ego is well documented. It came as no surprise to learn that the final work on the disc, a transcription for the unusual combination of viola and guitar of a sonata for viola and orchestra Paganini composed because he felt that the recently completed Berlioz work Harold in Italy
was another failed work for viola. He felt that the Berlioz work did not sufficiently showcase his prodigious talents. This despite the fact that it was Paganini who had asked Berlioz to write a work for him to play on his large Stradivari viola. He did not consider that there was enough for him to do in it and never played it. Coincidentally having begun this review yesterday I then heard the Berlioz’s on the radio. If I had been around in 1834 I would have advised Paganini to stick to performing because, pleasant though this work is, it cannot be compared to Harold in Italy
even though that work is really more of a symphony with viola than a viola concerto.
This disc is another nail in the coffin of viola jokes and sniffy opinions of the instrument. It contains some really sumptuous writing for viola and the warmth which emanates from the music is quite palpable. As for the soloist I quote the following from the website Culture.pl:
"In 2013, Budnik-Gałązka received a nomination for the annual Polityka Passports (Paszporty Polityki) Award, given out annually to the most promising faces of Polish culture in a number of disciplines. The jury justified their choice: “The viola is an object of numerous stereotypical and pretentious jokes, which derive from the fact that it is a common practice at Polish music schools to send those who are not coping with violin to a viola class, ignoring the fact that playing on the latter is actually more difficult - hence the low level of many of our viola players. Katarzyna Budnik-Gałązka proves that this can – and should – be completely different.”
I absolutely concur with that sentiment as she brings a supremely rounded velvet tone to everything she plays. I hope we’ll hear more from her; how about a recording of Harold in Italy