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Michael KIMBER (b.1945) Music for viola 4 Night music for viola and string orchestra (2013) [14.57] Adventure Overture (2009) [2.57] Evocations for viola and string orchestra (2005) [18.50] Traveling Music (2005) [5.46] Odyssey Overture (2011) [3.42] Variations on a Polish folk song (2014) [20.20] My cute kitten for viola and string orchestra (2014) [3.34] You will go by mountain [3.13]
Marcin Murawski, Martyna Kowzan, Ewa Tracs, Alicja Guściora, Justyna
Kowalczyk (violas) Boczniewicz Sisters (vocals) Mariusz Siejko
(double-bass) Kameralna Concertino Orchestra/Marek Siwka
rec. Moryn Parish Church, July 2014 ACTE PRÉALABLE AP0335 [73.25]
Music for viola 6 Four Melodious Études for solo viola (2009) [9.27] Violapalooza for viola quartet (2009) [1.26] Traveling Music for viola ensemble (2005) [5.16] Fugal Fantasia on The First Noel (2012) [3.35] Three Quirky Little Pieces (2006) [8.36] Rhapsody for viola and string orchestra (2015) [13.32] Traveling for string orchestra (2006) [6.03] Pawel MICHAŁOWSKIJ (b.1990) Murovisation-Celebration [2.54]
Martyna Kowzan, Ewa Tracs, Alicja Guściora, Marcin Murawski, Martyna
Kowzan, Ewa Tracs, Alicja Guściora, Pawel Michałowskij (violas)
Orkiestra dia Dyplomantów/Eugeniusz Dabrowski
rec. Aula Nova, Paderewski School of Music, Poznań , November 2014 & May 2015 ACTE PRÉALABLE AP0349 [50.56]
The two CDs here comprise Volumes Four and Six of a series of ‘Music for viola’ issued by a label devoted to the promotion of Polish music and musicians, but composed by an American and prominently featuring the specific talents of Marcin Murawski. The poor viola player remains the butt of many an orchestral joke, but in fact the unfair denigration of the instrument dates back to its reputation in the nineteenth century; Cecil Forsyth in his 1914 textbook on Orchestration refers slightingly to the solo part in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy in terms, which clearly imply that the players around at that time were decidedly inferior to their string counterparts on violin and cello. Composers, too, seem to have neglected the instrument during that period, preferring to give precedence to melodic lines on the emotional high A string of the cello with the violas frequently reduced to accompaniment figures underneath; and even Wagner’s appropriation of the viola sound to accompany the role of Mime in Siegfried seems to owe more to a desire for characterisation rather than any commitment to the sound of the instrument in its own right. During the twentieth century, composers sought to rectify the balance, writing many magnificent solo works featuring the viola; but the instrument’s reputation seems nonetheless to have stuck.
All the more credit, therefore, to Michael Kimber for his espousal of the cause of the viola as exemplified by this extensive series of discs, with all the works featured here written in the last twelve years. Kimber himself plays the instrument, having been a professional player since the 1960s; but he only began to compose again for the instrument after 1985. One sometimes fears that a modern composer, writing for an instrument which he actually plays, may feel tempted to move into the field of out-and-out experimentation, employing modern techniques, which may have novelty value for the player/composer themselves but have limited interest for the more general listener (one could cite many unfortunate examples); but of that there is no suspicion here, apart from the fact that Kimber writes idiomatically for all the stringed instruments.
The very beginning of Night music, for example, sounds reassuringly familiar with a four-note phrase, which reminded me immediately of the theme Bernard Herrmann used for Catherine Earnshaw in his opera Wuthering Heights. The use of string orchestra, too, might suggest overtones of Herrmann in his scoring for the film Psycho; but the music here is very different, a set of variations in search of a theme which is by turns reflective and impassioned. There are more overtones of film music in the Adventure Overture, which the composer informs us was written immediately after hearing a concert of music by John Williams; the liveliness of Williams is certainly present, even if the sheer melodic facility of the latter is less in evidence. Following this, Evocations is effectively a concerto for solo viola and string orchestra, with a particularly beautiful slow movement and a perpetuum mobile of a finale that buzzes effectively to a conclusion with a returning folk-like melody, which launched the work some twenty minutes earlier.
The two CDs here each contain a performance of Traveling Music, but the two are startlingly different in their timings. That on Volume Four features a full string orchestra with a first movement that is nearly half a minute shorter than that on Volume Six, with viola ensemble (in a movement less than two minutes in duration!), while the second movement is nearly a full minute longer (in a movement that is less than three minutes long). I must admit that I preferred the version for full string orchestra, with the mysterious second movement particularly effective at the slower speed. It is followed on Volume Four with the Odyssey Overture, depicting a generalised journey rather than any Homeric epic; it makes a more substantial conclusion to the Traveling Music than the otherwise rather brief final movement.
The real highlight on this disc however comes with the Variations on a Polish folk song for solo viola and string orchestra. The variations themselves adhere fairly closely to the original folk melody, but this is no hardship at all, when the tune itself is so beautiful; and the contrasts between the individual variations are superbly arranged, including one variation where two contralto voices, decidedly folkish in sound, sing verses from the original song – where we are provided with complete texts and translations. The two sisters Ramona and Natalia then give us a bonus track in the shape of a second rendition of the original song, this time in Lemko (a Cyrillic dialect), with some subtle variants on the version heard in the Variations and a reduced orchestration for viola quintet with double-bass. The CD concludes with a brief pizzicato scherzo entitled My cute kitten, where Kimber gives us plenty of amusement in the shape of bent notes and other quirky effects, although the inserted laughter provided by the orchestral players gives us altogether too cute an effect for comfort. This is unashamedly light music in the Leroy Anderson mode, but it makes an effective encore – which is clearly all that it pretends to be.
The playing of the orchestra, and of the principal soloist Marcin Murawski, is absolutely superlative throughout, and the recording is superbly resonant and rich. For some obscure reason the booklet gives us three photographs of the players paddling in the sea (mercifully without their instruments) but they appear more conventionally posed on the front cover of this highly recommendable disc. The cover of Volume Six, with a portrait of the composer, claims that the works there are “world premiere recording” [sic], but so far as I can tell none of the works on either of these discs have ever been the subject of a previous commercial recording; and the Variations on a Polish folk song certainly deserve to be heard again in alternative readings.
Which brings us rather neatly to the second CD under consideration here, Volume Six of what I suppose we could call a “Kimber Edition”. Most of the music here, including the chamber version of the Traveling Music, is on a much smaller scale – including the four Melodious Études for solo viola, pleasant if mainly single-strand studies, any one of which might make a welcome encore item following a concerto performance. The Fugal Fantasia on The First Noel is also pleasant, if fairly predictable in its use of the well-known Christmas carol. Many of the other items, such as Violapalooza! fall into the ‘light music’ category; the composer notes that the second and third of the Three quirky little pieces contain references to popular items such as Juniventino Rosas’s Over the waves in the Wandering waltz and Sousa’s Stars and Stripes forever in the Misbehaving march, but I also entertain a sneaking suspicion that the middle section of the opening Rambling rag is designed as a variation on Kander’s title song for Cabaret. Also in this essentially light category comes the only work on these CDs not composed by Michael Kimber, the Murovisation-Celebration by Pawel Michełowski; we are told that this short jeu d’ésprit was “conceived as a birthday present,” but we are not told for whom or how the music relates (if at all) to the other pieces on the disc, nor are we given any explanation for the title.
The last two pieces on this second CD are much more substantial, forming a gratifyingly more weighty conclusion to the survey of Kimber’s viola music. The Rhapsody for viola and string orchestra, played here not by Marcin Murawski but by its original performer Martyna Kowzan, is an extensive piece lasting just under a quarter of an hour; it is effective enough, but it lacks the shape of the major pieces featured on Volume Four, and sometimes the music seems to lose focus. The CD concludes with Traveling for string orchestra, another piece inspired by the idea of a journey, where the players are highly effective in their handling of the circular form, where the music winds back to its beginning at the conclusion. Again the recording is resonant and full. But of the two CDs under consideration here it Volume Four that brings the more substantial rewards for the listener, quite apart from its longer duration. Both have substantial booklet notes in Polish and English, copious and informative.