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Henri VIEUXTEMPS (1820-1881)
Sonata for viola and piano in B flat major Op. 36 (publ. 1863) [24:13]
Capriccio for viola solo Op. posth. [3:38]
Unfinished Sonata for viola and piano Op. posth. [27:35]
Elegy for viola and piano, op. 30 (1854) [7:00]
Etude for viola and piano [3:42]
Christian Euler (viola)
Paul Rivinius (piano)
rec. 2017, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
MDG 90320636 SACD [66:11]

Violin virtuoso Henri Vieuxtemps is best remembered for his violin concertos, and the bulk of his chamber music with piano is for the violin. This collection of viola works is therefore an attractive prospect, though a short search through the catalogues shows plenty of alternatives for the Sonata Op. 36. This is Vieuxtemps’ most ambitious and significant work for viola and piano, and with its richly expressive melodies and symphonic piano part, stands high amongst works of this genre in the Romantic idiom.

Written in three movements, the Maestoso first does very much what it says on the tin, opening and almost closing with an expansive slow passage that develops into a substantial exploration of dramatic, concerto-like musical substance. A dramatic reprise in the coda sets us up for the melancholy mood of the Barcarolla second movement, the viola singing its ballad over a more restrained piano part, both players being asked for more diverse contributions as the music grows in scale, not really in variation form but with something of that character. The Finale opens with an innocent passage from the piano, but expectations of virtuosity hang in the air from the outset, and Vieuxtemps certainly delivers in this regard as the Scherzando aspect of the movement raises the temperature right to the end.

The Capriccio for viola solo is subtitled ‘homage to Paganini’, and is a fine example of Vieuxtemps’ inventiveness when it comes to melodic expression and form. Virtuosity is never entirely absent, with plenty of chords and double-stopping, but this is always in the service of the quality of the material. The unfinished Sonata in B-flat is at not far short of 30 minutes certainly by no means insubstantial, and the opening theme is one of those tunes that can stick around in your memory for a long time if you let it. Two movements exist of what may or may not have been intended as a three-movement work, but speculation of this kind yields no concrete conclusions. The first Allegro con fuoco movement is very fine indeed, and almost operatic in its scope. The following Scherzo is lighter, with a dance character at the outset that digs as deeply as it can into its musical material, but has more of an episodic character than that of an impressive musical arc.

The Elegy has become one of Vieuxtemps’ more famous pieces and is summed up in Norbert Horning’s booklet notes as “surely one of the most profound works by the Belgian violinist and composer, a little gem for sure!” Rediscovered in the 1970s, the Etude finishes this programme in style, its dramatic character delivering a rousing conclusion.

When it comes to the competition, Naxos has a release with Roberto Diaz and Robert Koenig that overlaps much of this repertoire (review). Roberto Diaz has a probing way with dynamics that heighten the atmosphere of the opening of the Sonata Op. 36, and his throatier tone has a lighter agility compared to Christian Euler in the faster passages, though Euler has more low-frequency sound at these points. The Naxos recording is set in a more resonant acoustic, and pianist Robert Koenig makes the accompaniment in the Elegy flow more in comparison with Paul Rivinius, whose pointillist approach avoids all use of the pedal in the opening. Looking at the score and you would have to say Rivinius is in the right, with no mention of pedal in the first page and those bass notes given Staccato markings. These intriguing differences make for some unexpected contrasts, but in general I can’t say I actually prefer this MDG release over the Naxos recording, fine though it is. Roberto Diaz’s playing of the Capriccio has a more narrative feel to it when compared to Christian Euler’s less impassioned, more technical but still beautiful style.

Henri Vieuxtemps’ work doesn’t have quite the memorable sticking power of César Franck’s if we’re talking about large-scale sonatas, but this is nevertheless an excellent programme recorded to MDG’s usual high standard, with their 2+2+2 spatial technique available in SACD mode. If the performances are not quite absolute giant-killers then they certainly throw out some interesting questions, and Vieuxtemps viola fans should certainly be aware and appreciative of this fine recording.

Dominy Clements
Previous review: Richard Hanlon


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