Dutch Hidden Gems
Henk Badings (1907-1987)
Viola Concerto (1965)
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1951)
Arne Werkman (b. 1960)
Pavane for Viola and String Orchestra
Jan Koetsier (1911-2006)
Concertino for Viola and Orchestra (1940)
Henriëtte Bosmans (1895-1952)
Dana Zemtsov (viola)
Anna Fedorova (piano)
Phion Orchestra of Gelderland & Overijssel/Shizuo Kuwahara
rec. 2021, Muziekcentrum Enschede, MCO Hilversum, The Netherlands
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS41222 
The title of this disc pretty much sums up the contents perfectly. Perhaps adding “20th Century” might have made the title more accurate if less neat. This is viola soloist Dana Zemtsov’s fourth CD for Channel Classics, but the first I have heard. As is the norm these days her technique is wonderfully secure and she plays these unfamiliar (to me at least) scores with complete conviction. Her accompanists are pianist Anna Fedorova in the chamber works and the Phion Orchestra in the orchestral ones. Again the name of the orchestra was unfamiliar to me but it turns out that this is the new name given to the ensemble that resulted from the merger of the Arnhem Philharmonic and the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra in 2019. Certainly they play very well for conductor Shizuo Kuwahara and are well recorded by Channel Classics.
The disc opens with Henk Badings’ Viola Concerto from 1965 by which time Badings was experimenting with a wide range of different aspects of music including the use of electronic instruments as well as making extended use of different scale away from the common 12 tone octave. The liner – slightly annoyingly - refers to him making use of the “traditional octatonic scale”. Of course the normal major/minor scales are eight step but Badings’ scale were certainly not the traditional ones. But Badings used the system of modes to mix up the sequence of tones and semitones to create different scales. He also went further and devised a 31 note scale which is effectively microtones. There is a certain irony that an artist as prodigiously prolific as Badings – apparently there are over a thousand works by this mainly self-taught composer – should remain “little known”. Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that immediately after World War II he was accused of having collaborated with the occupying Nazis. He was rehabilitated in the late 1940’s but clearly the question remained.
There is a telling quote in the liner regarding this concerto “... the 12-note temperament makes way for the finer interval patterns of the 31-note temperament. This melody develops into triplet motifs which go beyond the perception boundary of micro-intervals. At that point the 12-note temperament returns unnoticed.” [my bold italics]. While noting the complete conviction and skill of this performance I would question a compositional technique that goes “beyond the perception boundary”. In other words the listener – and that most certainly included me – has no clue that these intricate and overly-complicated compositional devices are being applied. To the innocent ear alone this is a quite interesting work which sounds fairly typically 1960’s modernist with clean instrumental textures, acerbic harmonies and muscular rhythms. The liner references Hindemith (a famous viola player in his own right) which is a reasonable comparison although there are moments of Waltonian edgy lyricism and Stravinskian angularity. The central Adagio is attractive and the entire score is well played by the strings of the Phion Orchestra – no mention in the liner or CD cover that this is a work for viola and strings alone. As is probably fairly clear this work did not engage me greatly no matter how well presented as it undoubtedly is
Two more concertante works follow and indeed with them and the rest of this programme I enjoyed the music much more. Arne Werkman was unknown to me. As represented by this Pavane for Viola and String Orchestra his musical vocabulary is attractively approachable modernist. As the title suggests he clothes the stately form of a 16th Century pavane in modern harmonic dress. The result is a fairly sombre but rather beautiful 5:25 miniature that is effectively and expressively played here. A quick check suggests that this work has been previously recorded. Jan Koetsier is another composer about whom I knew nothing at all. His 1940 Concertino for Viola and Orchestra is unmistakeably neo-classical. Apparently this work was revised in 1955 but the liner makes no reference to which edition/version is used for this recording. Although Dutch by birth, Koetsier’s family moved to Berlin when he was just two years old with his subsequent musical training and the bulk of his career in Germany. ‘Classical’ woodwind and a pair of horns are added to the strings along with some discreet percussion writing to this attractive and compact score. The entire work – as the title suggests – is quite brief running for just around twelve and a half minutes for the three movements combined. The liner suggests Hindemith again as an influence and this is certainly true of the opening allegro energico with the textures kept very clean and light and the energy implied by the movement heading clear-headed and athletic rather than any emotional turmoil. The central andante cantabile has the feel of a funeral cortege with really beautifully hushed and focussed playing from all involved – this is an impressively concentrated 4:33 movement that has the hint of a passacaglia too. Dana Zemtsov’s viola sings passionately high above the stalking bass lines. The liner calls the last movement lento quasi recitativo but this would seem to apply to the very brief cadenza-like opening to the movement. Almost immediately the sombre mood of the central movement is lifted and replaced by some very playful writing in sharply contrasted sections. The very ending of the work is wittily nonchalant and caps a wholly enjoyable work. I can imagine it being useful for chamber orchestras to programme although its relative brevity would prevent a programme being built around it.
The disc is completed by two works for viola and piano. Dana Zemtsov and Anna Fedorova recorded a disc for Channel Classics that was released just over two years ago so clearly they are an established musical partnership. According to the liner Fedorova is called the “house pianist of the Concertgebouw” and has an impressive solo CV. Certainly she is a very fine player and her powerful and articulate style matches Zemtsov well and makes for an exciting combination. The first work they play together on this disc is Henk Badings’ Viola Sonata which dates some fifteen years earlier than the concerto. If the concerto ultimately left me rather indifferent, the sonata is a strikingly impressive piece. I am not quite sure when I have heard such a difference in style from the same composer in two ‘absolute’ – not written to illustrate something else – pieces of music. If the concerto is a sort of Hindemithian neo-classical work the sonata sounds for all the world like a lost work by Arnold Bax. Everything from the tesitura of the viola part, to the complexity of the keyboard writing and the emotional turmoil of the musical landscape speaks to a quite different musical era and aesthetic. Normally I try and avoid the comparison to other composers but here it is really very striking to the point that it is hard to imagine the work not having been written in the first flush of familiarity with the older composer’s work. A couple of other factors contribute noticeably to the impact of this work. Zemtsov plays throughout with an intense almost febrile vibrato. This makes for a beautifully focussed tone in all the works performed but somehow it especially suits the post-Romantic sweep of this sonata. Also, the Channel Classics engineers have brought the viola slightly closer to the microphone as well as ensuring that the piano part registers very clearly. Given the weight and complexity of the keyboard writing – played with real aplomb here – my initial thought was that it might swamp the solo string line. Actually the ear quickly adjusted and the effect is of an equal musical partnership. The sonata’s form is again standard – three movements in a fast-slow-fast structure with a total running time of approximately twenty minutes. Badings’ use of a cyclical form built from a basic germinal musical cell is also reminiscent of several composers not just Bax. The liner cites Liszt and Franck but I assume the comparison is in the use of basic melodic building blocks rather than any other musical kinship – which I do hear at all. Of course, so different are the concerto and sonata that the question of “will the real Henk Badings please stand up” arises. My guess is that he had a continually questing compositional personality resulted in a kind of musical chameleon and it will be up to the individual listener to decide which they prefer. I especially enjoyed the bardic central Largo which occupies the pensive legendary mood that Bax excelled in too.
The disc is completed by a genuine miniature gem; Henriëtte Bosmans’ Ariett. At just under three minutes this deserves to appear in many a viola recital – played with hushed poetic beauty by both performers. After the impassioned intensity of the sonata this makes for an effective and gentle conclusion to this fascinating disc.
I am not sure the perception of the viola as the ‘Cinderella’ of the string family has held much water for many years now. Such is the excellence of the players and the richness of the repertoire that such a description seems either ignorant or lazy or both. Certainly Dana Zemtsov is a member of the current elite of very fine players and all of this unusual repertoire benefits greatly from her assured and committed playing. This is an enjoyable collection throughout with the Badings sonata the piece to which I will return most frequently. Fine engineering supporting the polished performances throughout make this an attractive disc for curious collectors.
Previous review: Dave Billinge (May 2022)
Published: October 19, 2022