York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Phantasy for Viola and Piano, Op.54 [14:36]
Clarice ASSAD (b.1978)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Märchenbilder, Op.113 [14:57]
Garth KNOX (b.1956)
Fuga libre [8:40]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Impromptu for Viola and Piano, Op.33 [1:56]
Franz WAXMAN (1906-1967)
Carmen Fantasie [12:00]
Matthew Lipman (viola)
Henry Kramer (piano)
rec. 2017/18, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
CEDILLE CDR90000184 [64:37]
Chicago-born, 26-year-old Matthew Lipman is already making waves around the world as both an ambassador for and a highly accomplished player of the viola. He made his recording debut in 2013 (on Avie) partnering Rachel Barton Pine and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields with Sir Neville Marriner in the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, and very impressive it was too. Now he has released his first solo CD and built it around a work specially commissioned from Clarice Assad in memory of Lipman’s mother who died in 2014. Whether the sad circumstances of the recording (Lipman writes movingly of his mother in an introductory essay in the booklet) have imbued his playing with an extra emotional intensity, or whether it’s there all along, there is something about this disc which sets it aside from the usual debut recital.
The choice of music, for a start, is more concerned with expression and feeling than empty displays of virtuosity, and even Waxman’s famous violin showpiece, the Carmen Fantasie takes on here an added sense of emotional intensity and insight which may be a result of its conversion to the more mournful voice of the viola or of Lipman’s own heightened sensitivities. But whatever the reason, it elevates this into a work of rather more rewarding qualities than I had hitherto realised.
To begin at the beginning, we have York Bowen’s Phantasy, one of the standards of the viola repertory and arguably Bowen’s most impressive creation. Overlooking the silly observation in the booklet notes that Bowen was “the English Rachmaninov”, the opening viola solo is so utterly redolent of English pastoral-nostalgia music of the immediate post-war era (the Phantasy dates from 1918) that it is difficult to see this music as anything other than a reflection on what is lost and what might have been. The sensitivity and intensity of Lipman’s playing, squeezing every last drop of emotive power and reflective depth from this powerful and frequently passionate music, with its seamless switching between deep introspection and outward display, is impressive, as is the simply gorgeous tone he gets from his instrument.
Born in Brazil and having spent some of her youth in France, Clarice Assad moved to Chicago in 1997. Although not a particularly prolific composer, her Metamorfose reveals a highly imaginative hand, setting the essential lyricism of the viola against a rather more varied and virtuoso piano part, superbly played here by Henry Kramer, their duo partnership stretching back over six years to when both were undergraduates at Juilliard. Some relatively unconventional effects – a thumped bass and plucked piano strings along with harmonic shimmerings from the viola - help convey the purpose behind the two movement piece, which Assad describes as being prompted by “the lingerings of pain still present in his voice when he mentioned how much he missed her and the long journey of recovery into the person he is today”. It is that recovery process which is behind the work’s title; “the beautiful and unexpectedly gruesome metamorphoses of a butterfly”. How much the music proved to be cathartic in helping Lipman come to terms with the grieving process is not a subject for review, but it does perhaps explain why this compelling work gets such a committed and persuasive performance here.
The centrepiece of the recording is the Schumann Märchenbilder in which the depth of the Kramer/Lipman partnership is best revealed. The dialogue in the opening movement is endearingly intimate, as if both are discussing some matter of deep personal significance with sincerity and genuine mutual respect. There is a weightiness about the second movement which possibly belies the “lebhaft” marking, but which gives the music a tremendously firm sense of rootedness in the melancholia which was very much at the core of Schumann’s own persona. Agitated and disturbing, the third movement finds both players easily switching between the breathless figurations of the outer sections and the abrupt moment of introspection in the middle. The finale finds Schumann at his story-telling best, and Lipman is happy to let the tale unfold at its own pace, never punishing things along and revelling in the richness of this sometimes nostalgic, sometimes melancholic, but always expressive musical language.
Garth Knox is a violist and his Fuga libre one of the instrument’s more important solo works. Knox himself recorded it on ECM in 2009 when he described it as beginning “hesitantly in a kind of baroque jazz style”. I do not hear the jazz in Lipman’s performance, something very evident in Knox’s own, but I do hear the echoes of antiquity as he maintains a poise and level-headedness in a brilliantly-crafted demonstration of various playing techniques kept firmly in check by a clear sense of direction.
At barely two minutes in length, the Impromptu is hardly the most notable Shostakovich discovery. It was written in 1931 for the violist of the Glazunov Quartet and, according to the booklet note, “experts surmise that Shostakovich penned [it] in one sitting”. In short it was a trifle, a gift to a friend, and its rediscovery in 2017 hardly changed the course of Shostakovich scholarship. But, in that it stands along with the Sonata of 1975, as Shostakovich’s only solo music for the instrument, it is good to have a recorded performance of it. There is something Hebraic about the Impromptu with its mournful, slowly treading first section and its dance-like second part. At its root lies a certain sadness which Lipman makes much of in his premiere recorded performance of the piece.