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Guido PAPINI (1846-1912)
Quartet for four violas [6:35]
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Fantasy Quartet Op. 41 for four violas [10:28]
Max von WEINZIERL (1841-1898)
Nocturne (Nachtstück) Op. 34 for four violas [8:01]
Arne WERKMAN (b. 1960)
Quatre mouvements pour quatre altos op. 59 [10:49]
Arvydas MALCYS (b. 1957)
Elegy for four violas [5:11]
Daniil ZEMSTOV (b. 1996)
‘The circle of diminished fifths’ for four violas [3:30]
Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992) (arr. Evgeni Zemstov)
Verano porteño [4:29]
Milonga del Angel [4:41]
Muerte del Angel [2:58]
The Zemstov Viola Quartet (Mikhail Zemstov, Alexander Zemstov, Julia Dinerstein, Dana Zemstov (violas))
rec. 26-28 October 2013, Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, Hilversum
NAVIS CLASSICS NC14001 [57:19]

Welcome to the birth of a new CD label, and probably to a truckload of music by composers of whom you are unlikely to be familiar. Navis Classics is the initiative of recording engineer and producer Daan van Aalst, whose reputation has been established internationally through superb recordings for labels such as Onyx and Channel Classics, as well as the excellent Schubert series on Valthermond Recordings (reviews here and here). I have to declare an interest here from the outset. As the ‘go to’ native English person working at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague where Daan also works as a teacher you’ll spot my name in the credits as booklet text editor, so for once you know who to blame for all the typos. Next time I shall insist on paragraph indents, but otherwise I have to say I am impressed by the professional look of this as a product, which is well designed and colourful.
 
The recording is also very fine. A viola quartet sounds not dissimilar to conventional string quartet on first impression, but once attuned you soon start to identify the differences. The more extreme lows and highs are absent, but the lyrical qualities of the viola are more than equal to the task of melodic expressiveness, and the depth of the instruments has plenty of colour and texture. What you gain is a kind of airy transparency and lightness which is very easy on the ear without becoming bland or samey, especially with the quality of playing to be heard. Ensembles with a core of family members often have a special synergy, and in this the Zemstov Viola Quartet is a prime example.
 
Programming is another strong aspect of this release, with unusual repertoire and première recordings amongst the jewels to be found. Guido Papini was a violinist and composer who started out in Florence Italy and ended up in London. His Quartet might lack world-shaking originality but it has an antique feel, with great technical assuredness and not a little flair. Musically more interesting is York Bowen’s Fantasy Quartet, the association with viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis of which led me to an eponymous competitor to this release on the Oehms Classics label (see review). I’ve had a listen to this via the Naxos Music Library, and the Tertis Viola Ensemble tends towards a more overtly romantic, beefy sound with more vibrato and a more up-front recorded balance. They also play the Max von Weinzierl Nachtstück and add nearly a minute to the Zemstov’s timing. It’s a question of taste, but for repeated listening my money is with the restraint and poetry of the Zemstov Viola Quartet, in particular for the accuracy and lightness of touch they have with the more rhythmic and contrapuntal material further into the piece.
 
Arne Werkman’s Quatre mouvements was written for the Zemstov Viola Quartet, and is a pretty substantial work despite the relative brevity of its movements. There are some superb effects in the piece, which is crafted conventionally but filled with inventiveness, placing rhythmic energies and colour contrast against a Quasi Largo third movement in which “the quartet is singing as if it were once voice, in a measured, pensive tranquillity.” Lithuanian composer Arvydas Malcys’s Elegy was also written for this ensemble, which slowly evolves over a single pedal tone for the first four minutes and recedes with a final, beautifully quiet quasi-chorale. Daniil Zemstov is part of the newest generation of musicians, also studying viola, and with a talent for composition evidenced by The circle of diminished fifths which has Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet as its inspiration. The programme ends with three well-known pieces by the tango genius Astor Piazzolla, expertly arranged by Evgeni Zemstov. These work nicely as concert encores. With pizzicato and some striking effects of colouration they also make decent arrangements in their own right and a fitting conclusion to a fascinating programme of music from a superb and excellent ensemble capable of creating its own unique and highly attractive atmosphere.
 
Dominy Clements