Two Violas and a Cello

Two Violas and a Cello

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Dear Reader,

Hi there! Yes, I’m back from a self-imposed sabbatical. Wish I could say it cleared my head, sharpened my hearing, lifted my spirits. Probably did, a little. But my overall experience of the last six months and counting may have been like yours, which is to say: Groundhog Day. The takeaway? It helps to just keep going.

One thing I learned (over and over again) was to balance the quotidian and the transcendent. Sometimes a little peanut butter (crunchy, please) on a cracker (preferably a Keebler Toasted) means a lot. But so does Mahler; so does Bill Frisell. (For me, quotidian pleasures tend to get more specific than the transcendent ones.) I promise not to strain for too much transcendence in this space, nor deny any. We’ll see how that goes.

Recently I’ve developed a special affection for the sound of the viola, the alto/tenor member of the violin family. It’s pitched a fifth lower than the violin, so acoustically its body should be half again as large, but it isn’t. Any such instrument would be impossible to play as violins are played, at the shoulder. You will hear a wide range of individual viola sounds on recordings; typically the highest string produces a more nasal, piercing sound than the warmer, less assertive tones of the G and D middle strings. The ultimate test of a well-designed viola is just how beautiful yet resonant a tone you can produce on C, its lowest string.*

Good composers take these anomalies into account. In Ralph Vaughan Williams’s genial Suite for Viola and Orchestra (1934), sounds from the viola’s mellow middle register introduce our soloist and predominate thereafter. Here’s the first movement:


The music begins with more than a hint of Bach’s WTC but soon progresses to the pastoral lyricism more often associated with this composer. The YouTube link above offers a sequence of six tracks from violist Timothy Ridout’s excellent new album; the first four are drawn from Vaughan Williams’ Suite. It’s lovely, inviting music.

Vaughan Williams was himself a violist, as were two other composers represented on Ridout’s collection, Paul Hindemith and Benjamin Britten. The album’s weightiest music, however, comes from Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959), whose two-movement Rhapsody-Concerto (1952) will satisfy anyone craving a dose of Romantic High Drama. Like RVW, Martinů pointed to folk music (Czech, in his case) and English madrigals as strong influences. (The Rhapsody-Concerto’s first movement is No. 5 in the YouTube sequence above.)

In terms of sheer viola output, Hindemith (1895–1963) easily surpasses RVW and Britten put together. His dual career as a composer and viola soloist may account for this — after all, he’s often credited as founder of a whole movement: Gebrauchsmusik, “music that’s needed.” By 1935 he had written several viola concertos including Der Schwanendreher, based on melancholy folk songs that reference departure, loneliness, and grief. That was no accident: two years earlier, the cultural masters of the Third Reich had turned fully against him, and he could no longer obtain performances or commissions in his native Germany.

In January 1936 the composer arrived in London, where he had been engaged to play Schwanendreher with the BBC Symphony. Then George V died. Musical life in Great Britain came to a standstill, but the Brits made an unusual request. As Hindemith told his wife,

They did not want to do without me and so I wrote a piece of funereal music for string orchestra and solo viola. It is not really that original but as I had to do it quickly, I could not go on voyages of discovery.

The resulting Trauermusik ended with a Bach chorale well-known in England, Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit. It was broadcast with great success and became a staple of the viola repertoire, causing Hindemith to joke that “I’m now going to specialize in corpses.” (It’s No. 6 in our YouTube sequence.)

For a partial update to Ridout’s astutely assembled 20th-century Viola Club, I suggest a new piece by Pēteris Vasks (b. 1946), my personal nominee for Grand Old Man of Latvian music (do other candidates even exist?). Prolific Mr. Pēteris had already contributed two cello concertos and several works for violin and orchestra to the repertoire (I like his second cello concerto, Klätbütne), so it was high time he came up with something viola-centric; violist/conductor Maxim Rysanov obliged with a commission. We can hear the result of their successful collaboration on a new album from BIS; it also features one of Vasks’s most celebrated earlier works, the Symphony for Strings.

Vasks regards the viola as “a particularly melancholic instrument,” therefore “a very suitable one to talk about the time we are living in.” Its four movements make use of two concepts, chant (song) and monologue (conversation). In this case it’s a conversation “with oneself” and “about our time.” Dāvis Eņģelis, who wrote the liner notes, tells us that for Vasks,

in every piece there has to be something that leads the listener towards the light; in the Viola Concerto this path is more strenuous than in any other of his works.

I hope you find the four movements of this concerto so beautifully varied, so passionate, that their cathartic impact more than justifies the struggle they so forcefully express. To that end, I’m offering just the first four minutes of the third-movement Andante. In it, grief is still fully evident, that elusive ray of hope not yet in sight:

And now to slip down a notch on the string-family scale.

Several years ago in this spot I praised a big orchestral piece, Night Ferry, by Anna Clyne (b. 1980). The composer describes it as

music of voyages, from stormy darkness to enchanted worlds, music of the conjurer and setter of tides, [a] guide through the “ungovernable and dangerous.” . . . [These] threads of ideas and imagery . . . stem from Riccardo Muti’s suggestion that I look to Schubert for inspiration.

(You can read more of her thoughts about this astonishing music here.) A glance at Clyne’s catalog reveals that she has written over two dozen pieces since then, many of them major works commissioned by distinguished soloists or ensembles. One of them is DANCE. It’s now gotten a first-rate recording from cellist Inbal Segev, who commissioned it, and the London Philharmonic, here conducted by longtime Clyne advocate Marin Alsop:


DANCE sounds wildly different from Night Ferry. That was no accident: Clyne was inspired by a poem of Rumi, which consists of five brief lines, each of which becomes a separate movement.

Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.

If you listen closely, you’ll discover patches of complex, sensitive orchestral scoring not dissimilar to the phantasmagorical textures in Night Ferry. A bigger difference lies in this work’s striking — and strikingly accessible — succession of moods, which the gifted Segev delivers faultlessly. Her album is filled out with a work written exactly a hundred years earlier, the Elgar Cello Concerto. Honestly, even in such august company Clyne’s music more than holds its own. Impressive playing by the LPO, strong leadership from the podium.

*Thanks to David Boyden, New Grove 1980, for the straight dope on viola DNA.

Header: Viola by Antonio & Girolamo Amati, Cremona, 1617;
held by Kim Kashkashian.

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