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Josef TAL (1910-2008)
Suite for solo viola (1940) 11:28]
Perspective for solo viola (1996) [10:35]
Viola Sonata (1960) [7:58]
Duo for viola and piano (1965) [9:21]
Hartmut Rohde (viola), Christian Seibert (piano)
rec. 2014, WDR Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, Cologne
AVI MUSIC 8553144 [40:02]

Josef Tal lived long enough to perform with viola player Hartmut Rohde. Tal was then 94, and the location was Berlin where he – though born in what is now Poland – had grown up and studied. Indeed, it was the 1995 international Hindemith Festival in Berlin that later encouraged Rohde to seek out Hindemith’s pupils, of whom Tal was one of the most eminent. Tal had an extensive portfolio of works to his credit including operas in Hebrew and German and a slew of symphonies and his early emigration to Palestine in 1934 was the inauguration of an extensive composition and teaching career, of which experimentation in electronics was an important component.

The chamber music for viola is not extensive but does represent significant stages in Tal’s compositional life, taking in well over half a century of development. The earliest work is perhaps the best-known, the Suite for solo viola which dates from 1940. It’s significant for its revelation of Hindemith’s continuing influence but it also reveals Tal’s lyrical astringency, and his capacity for - and mastery of - phrasal angularity. Alternation of chording and trills, wide expressive range, Regerian antecedents and emotive states that range from dour to explosive are all strong elements of Tal’s armoury. An ingenious Tango with pizzicati serving as a bass pulsation works as a third movement Scherzo and attests to his capacity for slinky novelty, whilst the finale cleverly metamorphosises material from the opening movement to great effect.

Perspective for solo viola is the most recent piece, dating from 1996. It’s a powerful, single-span lasting nearly 11 minutes employing a lot of col legno and sul ponticello as well as regulation, punctuating pizzicati. These devices are not merely structural or ear-titillating; rather, they are part of the bloodstream of a complex and challenging work that strikes a modernist stance whilst also embodying clear examples of Tal’s earlier Hindemith-leaning associations. The 1960 Viola Sonata is another reference point of that lingering influence, with fast and lean passages alternating with broodier paragraphs; terse, purposeful and highly effective. It and the Duo are the two works in which Tal employed the piano though the latter is a more fragmentary utterance – rather hooded but with dappled elegance from the piano.

Rohde’s eloquent, tonally sensitive playing, assisted in the latter two works by Christian Seibert, make a fine case for Tal’s viola works and they have been well recorded. The booklet notes are by the perceptive violist and are printed in German and English. Short measure? Yes, and I’m sure some would perhaps have perhaps preferred some element of contextualising Tal’s work with Reger and/or Hindemith – the obvious composers to select – but for a concentrated focus this is a dedicated and successful exploration.

Jonathan Woolf

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