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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Notturno, Op. 42 (arr. Primrose for viola and piano) [29:35]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne No. 2 in E flat, Op. 9 No. 2 [4:13]
Nocturne No. 13 in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1 [5:40]
Nocturne No. 18 in E, Op. 62 No. 2 [5:45]
Johann KALLIWODA (1801-1866)
Six Nocturnes for viola and piano, Op. 186 [25:08]
Marcin Murawski (viola); Anna Starzec-Makandasis (piano)
rec. 21-23 June 2015, Aula Nova, Paderewski Academy of Music, Poznan, Poland

A disc full of viola nocturnes probably doesn’t sound like the most promising prospect, but prepare to be surprised. This CD smartly combines an old favourite by Beethoven, some transcriptions of Chopin, and a major discovery from Johann Kalliwoda, one of the most underrated and exciting composers of the nineteenth century.

Beethoven’s Notturno dates from before 1800, and is a fairly classical work in language, although William Primrose’s transcription adds lots of virtuoso work for the viola and gives it many of the finest melodies. The structure of the work, as a serenade, results in a seven-movement structure, although the last is a simple reprise of the first. Kalliwoda, meanwhile, wrote his Six Nocturnes as a kind of suite, and they do not stick to the Chopin/Field definition. Three are slow cantabile works, true, but three are faster and more virtuosic for both partners, in a musical language that has much in common with Beethoven and maybe Schumann. The final nocturne is a bit of a shock, beginning as it does with a strikingly discordant piano attack that dispels the serenity of the previous piece. Kalliwoda always had an eccentric trick up his sleeve.

In between, we have three Chopin nocturnes, transcribed for viola and piano by various performers. They were first transcribed for violin or cello, before the violist on this recording, Marcin Murawski, made the final necessary revision. The nocturnes are not too heavily altered, and the pianist still has most of the work, especially in the powerfully dramatic No. 13 in C minor. Perhaps as a result of their fidelity to the originals, the transcriptions are enjoyable ones.

Indeed, this is a very enjoyable disc. Murawski is a good violist, who provides impassioned advocacy of the Kalliwoda piece especially. His tone and instrument are generally beautiful, although I do speak as someone who likes the sound of the viola much more than your average listener. Murawski has a long catalogue of viola discs for Acte Prealable, which look to be quite interesting too. We’ve reviewed a few: Hummel was “interesting if not relevatory” (AP0226 - review), classical flute-viola duos were “inventive … lyrical and bright” (AP0222 - review), and the first two volumes of a series dedicated to contemporary composer Michael Kimber were primarily light-music of “sheer audience-friendliness” (Vol. 1: AP0284 - review; Vol. 2: AP0321 - review). A work on Volume 2 of that series had movements named after cats.

Anna Starzec-Makandasis has an awful lot of work to do, and although there are a couple of audible finger-slips, she generally does a phenomenal job. Her biography says she has “worked with” such pianists as Menahem Pressler, Paul Badura-Skoda, and “Garry Graffman” [sic].)

In all, this is a very fine disc, and for fans of the classical and early-romantic viola repertory, it’s pretty essential. That repertory is small, after all, and it includes few works as important as these two. Good performances, excellent recorded sound from Acte Préalable (but turn down the volume), and an amiable booklet essay by the violist complete this high-quality package.

Brian Reinhart