bel canto; la voix de l’alto / the voice of viola, Antoine Tamestit, viola (Stradivarius “Mahler,” 1672), Cédric Tiberghien, piano, Vincenzo Bellini, Norma: “Casta Diva,” Gaetano Donizetti, La Fille du regiment, Marie: “Il faut partir,” La Favorita, Léonore: “Ô mon Fernand,” Jacques-Féreol Mazas, Le Songe; Élégie sur La Favorite de Donizetti, Op. 92, Casimir Ney, XVe Prélude pour alto seul, Henri Vieuxtemps, Capriccio pour alto seul, Op. 55, Élégie pour alto avec accompagnement de piano, Op. 30, Sonate pour alto et piano, Op. 36, harmonia mundi HMM 902277, © 2017, TT 65:15, $19.98 via Amazon.

Lady Viola, Kristina Fialová, viola (Carlo Antonio Testore-Contrada, 1745), Jitka Čechová, piano, Anna Paulova, clarinet, Grażyna Bacewicz, Polish Capriccio for Viola Solo, Sylvie Bodorová, Gila Rome; Meditation for Viola Solo, Rebecca Clarke, Morpheus for Viola and Piano, Passacaglia for Viola and Piano, Prelude, Allegro and Pastoral for Viola and Clarinet, Lillian Fuchs, Sonata Pastorale for Viola Solo, Maria Theresia von Paradis, Sicilienne for Viola and Piano, Sláva Vorlová, Fantasia on a 15th Century Folk Song for Viola Solo, Op. 33, Arco Diva UP 0236, © 2021, TT 56:14, $16.99 via Amazon.

Mosaic, Wenting Kang, viola (Armando Altavilla, Napoli, 1911 [courtesy of Kang via Kvitko), Sergei Kvitko, b. 1968, piano (Steinway D274; serial # 605417, 2017, courtesy of Kvitko), Isaac Albéniz, Tango in D, Op. 165, No. 2, Pablo Casals, El Cant dels Ocells, Claude Debussy, “Beau Soir,” Première Rhapsodie, Manuel de Falla, Siete canciones populares españolas, Gabriel Fauré, “Après un rêve,” Op. 7, No. 2, Berceuse, Op. 16, Élégie in C minor, Op. 24, Papillon, Op. 77, Akira Nishimura, Fantasia on Song of the Birds, Francisco Tárrega, Recuerdo de la Alhambra, Maurice Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte, Vocalise-étude en forme de Habanera, Blue Griffin Records BGR 609, © 2022, TT 70:52, $15.99 from the label. See Karen Moorman’s detailed review of this CD.

Kvitko is also a prize-winning recording engineer, and a composer (incidental music for Steven Dietz’s “Dracula”), who has an interesting and good début recording of works he has adored since childhood (pp. 3-4), whose scores he edited to improve on existing ones (p. 5): Mozart, Post Scriptum, Concerto in D minor, No. 20, K 466, Rondo in D, K 382, Rondo in A, K. 386, piano (Steinway D274; serial # 605417, 2017, courtesy of Kvitko), Madrid Soloists Chamber Orchestra, Tigran Shiganyan, conductor, Blue Griffin (of which he is founder and owner) BGR 897, © 2021, TT 55:50, $15.99 from the label. The “Post Scriptum” refers to his “want[ing] the entire CD of these frequently recorded works to be full of surprises” (p. 5) with new cadenzas for all of them, something that he has been doing since childhood, some of which he thinks he has recreated, and “Easter eggs, and unexpected quotes” added in (p. 5), somewhat reviving the practice of musicians of that time improvising small parts of the work as they played it.

Frank Bridge (1874-1941), ‘Cello Sonata in D minor, H 125 (1913-17), arranged by the performer for viola who retained its original key of D minor (p. 8), There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook (1927; title from Shakespeare’s Hamlet [text reproduced in the booklet, pp. 9-10]) Impression for Small Orchestra, arr. by Benjamin Britten (1932) for viola and piano, Three Songs for Medium Voice, Viola, and Piano, H 76 (1906-07; Hindemith prepared a performing edition in 1982), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Elegy for Solo Viola, Op. 48a (1930; he apparently wrote it to perform himself: the fingerings in the single-page title-less ms. are his [p. 12]), Lachrymae; Reflections on a Song of Dowland, Op.48 (1950, rev. 1970), Hélène Clément, viola (Francesco Giussani, 1843; owned by Bridge, given to Britten, now on loan by the Britten Pears Arts to Clément; the booklet covers have different good-sized color photos of it), Alasdair Beatson, piano (Steinway D, serial # 592 097, courtesy of Potton Hall), Dame Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano, Chandos CHAN 20247, © 2022, TT 61:16, $14.00 via Presto.
(Listings: CDs in chronological, contents in alphabetical orders)

The viola is the alto voice in the violin family of bowed string instruments that was developed in Cremona, Italy, beginning in the 16th century, but mostly evolved in the 17th, ultimately displacing in listener preference the earlier viol(a da gamba) family that had developed and evolved from the Middle Ages in Western music, and from which it adopted the “waist” between the top and bottom of its body to make bowing easier without the arm touching it in the process. There is something of a similar family in Eastern music, with which I/we are not thoroughly familiar. If you read the listings, you know that the French name/word for it is « alto » (Yes, the punctuation, spaces incl., is the correct French form for a quotation.).

It is also often the neglected and un(der)appreciated “step-sister” member of its family, with much less solo or chamber music having been written for it, so much of that which is performed on it is transcribed from music composed for another instrument, or another voice in its family, or even for a human voice, as the title of the first CD suggests (three of its works are arias; seven on Mosaic’s program are songs, and one in the fourth CD is three songs with viola as part of the original accompaniment); these four CDs include some music in all those categories as well as some written for it, in the past and present, hence my including them in the group, and all are played by fine violists of different genders and nationalities. Some works on all the programs are Baroque forms or dance rhythms, and one is an Argentinian dance. Nearly all of those on Kang’s are new transcriptions.

The Bridge-Britten CD is special, a stunning, unique one, to be cherished for all time! Everything about it is magnificent, a communion/convention/crossing of the stars: composers, musicians, performers, music, and works. Britten was a private student of Bridge (he once said: Bridge’s “loathing of all sloppiness and amateurism set me standards to aim for that I’ve never forgotten.” [p. 8]), who gave him the instrument when he left for the USA on a tour at the beginning of WWII; they never saw each other again. Both also were inclined to write music like the modern Continental type, rather than “the conservative styles favoured by the British musical establishment, in particular the innovations of Schoenberg and his pupils Berg and Webern.” (p. 8). Britten wrote the Lachrymae for William Primrose, to whom it was dedicated and who performed the première with Britten at the piano. Mervyn Cooke’s booklet notes are thorough.

A few of the works (Vieuxtemps’ Sonata and Britten’s Lachrymae) on some of these CDs are to some extent ‘chestnuts,’ in the sense that there are several recordings available, and are performed live from time to time, but most are much less frequently heard. The composers of the second are all women, and three of the violists are women, for two of whom it’s their début CD. It is interesting that another sonata that is perhaps a bit more of a ‘chestnut,’ Rebecca Clarke’s, is missing in this particular group, though she is represented by three others of her works for viola. It is also interesting (and relatively unusual?) that not a single work appears on more than one CD. They are, consequently, very different from each other, making them yet more a varied sampling for introduction and listening. Two missing composers are Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), also a violist, who wrote seven sonatas, four of them solo, and other works involving the instrument; he also founded and played viola in the Amar Quartet; and William Walton (1902-1983), who also played the viola and was professor of it at the Royal Academy of Music after 1900, whose frequently performed and recorded viola concerto (1938-39) was written for Lionel Tertis (1876-1975), a famous violist now forgotten, but premièred by Hindemith.

The viola is perhaps the bowed instrument of the violin family that can vary the greatest proportionally in the size of its body; it is between 13 and 16 inches long, that being the average length, so 1 to 4 inches longer than a violin, which is part of why its range is also greater than those of the other members of the family, and is also part of the warmth of its tone(s), and those of the larger ones are often still deeper and warmer: Tertis’ first one was a large 1717 Montagnana that was 17 1/8″ long. But it is also less ‘flashy,’ more like light rather than lightening, which likely explains why it is less popular than the violin or the ‘cello with the general public; in a way, it’s a more reliable companion who always delivers. It also pairs particularly well with the oboe. If you listen closely, you appreciate and like it more and more. It has become, slowly but surely over my 60+ years of listening, exploring, and collecting recordings since I first discovered classical music in my freshman year of college in the fall of 1958, my favorite member of the family. It might become yours, too, if you give it a chance and a try. These CDs are a good starting point; they all feature fine musicians, several new to the art; I chose them thus (three [+ the performer-related piano one] are recent releases) deliberately to have a good cross-section to sample the instrument’s literature.

Other composers were partial to the viola, even though they didn’t play it, and composed works for it, in particular: Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), who wrote what is in effect the first concerto for it: Harold en Italie, Op. 16, (1834): he wrote about it very favorably in his Grand Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, Paris: Schonenberger, 1843, Chapt. 3, « l’Alto », pp.34-37 (pp. 52-58 in the 2003 Bärenreiter edition, ed. by Peter Bloom, Smith College Music Dept (retired); he writes in a note that the Paris Conservatoire did not teach the viola until 1894); Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who wrote several chamber music works, such as Märchenbilder, Op. 113 (1852), and Märchenerzählungen, Op. 132 (1853) for it [B & S knew each other, too]; and György Kurtág (b. 1926), who wrote Hommage à R. Sch., Op. 15d (1990); both of the last two works also include the clarinet. I recently acquired a CD, Jan Michiels, piano (Steinway & Sons, 1875 [Schumann], Steinway D [n. d., Kurtág]), Benjamin Dieltjens, clarinet, Tony Nys, viola; all graduates of the Royal Conservatory of Brussels) that includes all of these and more in excellent performances with superb program notes: Klara (Belgian subsidiary of) Et’cetera KTC 4016, © 2006, TT 73:13, $6.99 via BRO [Berkshire Record Outlet, seller of overstocks and remainders; no longer in the label’s catalogue].

Another such CD that I also acquired from BRO (in the same order) features music by a Welsh-born composer, Hillary Tann, who, since 1980, teaches at Union College in Schenectady, NY, where I taught public HS French from 1965 to 1978, five of whose six works feature the viola, solo and with several other instruments, one a duo with oboe: Songs of the Cotton Grass, Matthew Jones, viola, and ensemble, Deux-Elles DXL 1132, © 2005. TT 63:20, $7.99; it’s still in the label’s catalogue. It’s very different, unique, lovely, magical, and pleasant modern music.

My most recent order included yet another one, Centaur CRC 2660, Doris Lederer, viola, Jane Coop, piano, (no information about either of the instruments), © 2003, TT 68:22, with viola sonatas, that I did not know and had never heard, by two other British composers whose names begin with ‘B’: Arnold Bax (1883-1953) and York Bowen (1884-1961). I knew their names and had heard some of their music, but did not know these works, both composed for Lionel Tertis, the first violist to attempt to turn the instrument into a solo one – the booklet notes talk (p. 3) about his “oversized instrument” which made this possible – Bax in 1922 and Bowen in 1905 (when he was 21, so about a decade before Bridge’s and a decade before Britten’s works – neither of those wrote a sonata for the instrument). Tertis was on the faculty of the Royal Academy of Music when they were students there. They “were both superb pianists” (p.3), and Bowen performed with Tertis frequently; he was also “an accomplished violist, although one presumes he was no Tertis.” (p. 4) They are different from each other, but not dramatically, and are more related to the late-Romantic style, like Brahms’ two clarinet sonatas, Op. 120 (1894) that he arranged for viola in 1895. The CD also has Bowen’s Phantasy for Viola and Piano, Op. 54 (1918; performed by him [piano or viola?], even in the 1950s, but “unpublished until 1997” [36 years after his death], p. 4; notes by Bill Murray). Bax’s is the more modern, especially its 1920s-era opening, more like Les Six than Fauré, to whom the notes relate Bowen’s (p. 3), and I concur.