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A Tale of Two Violas
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concerto No.6 in B flat major (1721, arr. Iain Farrington) [17:20]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Allegretto, from Scherzo of Quartet D887 (arr. Tertis, 1936) [3:25]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Caprice (1912, ed. and compl. Rowland-Jones) [4:45]
John HAWKINS (b.1949)
At Two (2017) [7:28]
Giovanni Battista VITALI (1632-1692)
Suite arr. Borisovsky [10:34]
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
Elizabethan Melody (arr. Tertis, 1951) [4:10]
Lionel TERTIS (1876-1975)
Variations on a Passacaglia of Handel (1935) [8:23]
Bedřich (Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich) BENDA (1745-1814)
Sonata in D major [14:50]
Peter Mallinson (viola), Matthias Wiesner (viola), Evgenia Startseva (piano), Anneke Hodnett (harp), Michael Atkinson (cello), Nicholas Bayley (double bass)
rec. 2018, Church of St Edward the Confessor, London
MERIDIAN CDE84652 [71:30]

This is a cleverly constructed disc that explores repertoire for two violas largely through the work, original or via arrangement, of two great violists of the past, Lionel Tertis and Vadim Borisovsky. Whether composed, arranged or inspired by these two figures, the repertoire is stimulating and often new to disc.

The Tale of Two Violas actually begins with Bach and with Iain Farrington’s arrangement of the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto for two violas and piano. Farrington is a dab hand at reductions and arrangements as well, of course, as having to his name a raft of original compositions. It would have been good to have had Tertis’ own arrangement of the work, but it appears to be lost – it was premiered by Tertis and Bernard Shore in 1934. Incidentally Tertis always claimed to have recorded with Albert Sammons, for Vocalion, his arrangement, for violin and viola, of Bach’s Double Concerto. If recorded it was certainly never issued but some questing duo might like to take up the challenge and record it now. Peter Mallinson and Matthias Wiesner are the soloists here, buoyant in the overlapping lines of the finale and expert in the spare lines of the central slow movement.

Tertis’ arrangement of Schubert which he called Allegretto actually comes from the Scherzo of the Quartet in G major, D887, an oasis of calm – ingenious and ethereal, too, and beautifully played by the violists and finely supported by the attentive Evgenia Startseva. Frank Bridge was, like Tertis, a violist and like Tertis played in a number of outstanding ensembles. His Caprice was written for himself and Tertis to play at a concert in 1912 but like the companion Lament it hasn’t survived. Paul Hindmarsh, happily, reconstructed the Lament and violist Simon Rowland-Jones has done the same for the Caprice, based on surviving extensive sketches. Its rich ingratiating textures and warmly curvaceous lyricism make a fine addition to the two-viola repertoire and a worthy addition to Hindmarsh’s work.

The Elizabethan Melody is Tertis’ arrangement of Dowland’s Come Again, which Tertis arranged for himself and his cellist wife Lilian, to whom it’s dedicated, for their wedding in 1951. Tertis, a frisky and carnal character even in old age, like his exact contemporary Casals, must have been fully aware of the sensual implications of the text, not least the meaning, in the context, of ‘to die’. Of more stature as a piece is his Variations on a Passacaglia of Handel. This takes the same Handel Suite movement that Halvorsen did in his famous arrangement – which Tertis twice recorded with Sammons – but goes to town on them. The piece was dedicated to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and premiered in 1935 by Tertis and his favourite pupil Harry Berly – who also played saxophone with Roy Fox’s dance band and was later to kill himself. I liked the intensely introspective paragraphs Tertis finds, quite as much as the bravado of his virtuoso demands, with fine terpsichorean elements; cheeky dissonances too, though the tame ending rather disappoints, especially if you know the Halvorsen.

Borisovsky, founder member of the Beethoven Quartet, great soloist and pedagogue, is represented by his 1929 arrangement of Vitali and his much later work on a Benda Sonata (1960). The former consists of ten very short dance movements from Vitali’s Sonate da camera a tre, Op.14. Whether for viola or viola d’amore duo, Borisovsky’s completion of the harmonies is excellent and his employment of cello, double bass and harp – not harpsichord or even piano – divertingly adds other voices to the ensemble. Charming and tuneful – the Minuet II is a total winner – they prove irresistibly attractive and so too does the Benda, full of soliloquys and pregnant pauses in its central movement, suffused with lyricism and high spirits.

One work stands at something of a remove; John Hawkins’ At Two, written in 2017 to a commission from the two violists here. Taking its name from a laconic Woody Allen line – ‘I’m at two with nature’ – the two brief movements offer plentiful contrast, with an especially fast moving, even zany second movement to entertain the listener and stretch the performers.

This finely recorded programme sports well-researched notes by Mallinson. Together he and Wiesner and their colleagues offer a disc both to enlighten and to entertain.

Jonathan Woolf

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