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The viola sings out

Reviews of recordings by Kim Kashkashian, Yuri Bashmet, David Aaron Carpenter, Eliesha Nelson and others.

November 01, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Google "viola joke" and you'll be rewarded with thousands, an afternoon's worth of hilarity at the expense of one of the most expressive sound producing machines ever conjured up.

Here's a popular example: What's the difference between a viola and a trampoline? You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.

I learned that one from a violist who, like many of his colleagues, collects the jokes and posts them online. Why shouldn't he? He lives a charmed life with a string instrument mellower than a violin and more agile than a cello, a mechanism of magic, under his chin every day. He has no need for insecurity.

Even so, violists have traditionally fought for the limelight and seldom won, which may explain why the viola world has had its share of unstable characters as well. Covered by the higher and lower strings, the viola easily gets lost in the orchestra or a string quartet. The instrument lacks the stellar solo repertoire for violin or cello. For some inexplicable reason, such accomplished viola players as Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Dvorak seldom featured the instrument in their scores. Of the handful of viola soloists who became famous, none has been a household name to rival the great violinists and cellists.

That doesn't mean we need pity the poor violist. Things began looking up for the viola in the 20th century when notable viola concertos began being written. Things are looking up even more in the 21st. We now have several fine soloists on the scene, much new viola music being written for them, and neglected earlier viola music is being rediscovered. The viola has even become hip in the twentysomething new music club crowd. And many recent CDs have come out to prove all of this.

A strong contender for classical CD of the year and one that early Christmas shoppers should begin stocking up on is the latest ECM release featuring the extraordinary Armenian American violist Kim Kashkashian. The disc is titled "Neharot," after a stunningly beautiful and profoundly moving piece written for her by the Israeli composer Betty Olivero.

"Neharot Neharot" was written in 2006 in the midst of Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The title is Hebrew for "Rivers Rivers," an allusion to the tears of women but also to nehar, which means ray of hope. For viola, accordion, percussion, two string ensembles and tape, it melds many sad songs, not only Jewish but Kurdish and North African, into a rapturous whole; the viola (which has a range common to the voices of women and men) is here the great healer.

Olivero's piece is followed on Kashkashian's CD by Tigran Mansurian's "Three Arias (Sung out the window facing Mount Ararat)," resplendent works for solo viola and chamber orchestra by Armenia's leading composer. This disc concludes with another beautiful Israeli work -- Eitan Steinberg's "Rava Deravin" for viola and string quartet -- a haunting prayer in muted but glowing colors that finds common spiritual ground in Hasidic and Armenian song, the song of Holocaust-scarred peoples.

A warning: Do not download this recording. Buy the CD and play it through loudspeakers. This is music that embraces the world, and it needs to radiate in a space far more expansive than your cranium.

A star violist may be on the horizon. David Aaron Carpenter is a young American who makes his disc debut with recordings of a viola arrangement of Elgar's Cello Concerto and of Alfred Schnittke's Viola Concerto. Christoph Eschenbach, a champion of Carpenter, conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Elgar's autumnal concerto floats on air in its viola arrangement, and Carpenter has a robust sound and mercurial personality. Schnittke's concerto, which obsesses over cadences and short motifs while making radical stylist shifts, was written for the Russian virtuoso Yuri Bashmet, perhaps the most celebrated violist of our day. Carpenter goes to town with the score.

Bashmet himself makes an appearance on a collection of Bartok concertos on Deutsche Grammophon with Pierre Boulez conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. This instant classic has Gidon Kremer playing the First Violin Concerto and Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich tackling the Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra.

The real highlight is the Viola Concerto. It is a problem piece, since Bartok died before completing it and the final score was put together by Tibor Serly from extensive sketches. For that reason -- and just violists' luck -- what surely would have been the greatest viola concerto up to that time never fully materialized. But Bartok left material enough for an eloquent score to be realized, and the three Bs (Bashmet, Boulez and Berlin) elevate the composer's final thoughts probably as high as they can go.

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