Thursday, 22 August 2019

A Tale of Two Violas

A Tale of Two Violas - Meridian
A Tale of Two Violas, Bach, Tertis, Borisovsky; Peter Mallinson, Matthias Wiesner, Evgenia Startseva; Meridian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 August 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An imaginative survey of music written or arranged for viola duo by two of the great viola players of the 20th century

This disc from Meridian, A Tale of Two Violas, features two viola players from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Peter Mallinson and Matthias Wiesener, in an attractive and unusual programme of viola duets, some unaccompanied and some performed with Evgenia Startseva (piano), Anneke Hodnett (harp), Michael Atkinson (cello) and Nicholas Bayley (double bass).

The disc opens with Iain Farrington's arrangement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 for two violas and piano. What follows is then a tribute to two of the great viola pioneers of the 20th century, Lionel Tertis and Vadim Borisovsky, featuring music either composed or arranged by them. The programme is brought up to date with At Two by contemporary composer John Hawkins.

The opening movement of the Bach is lively and engaging, and rather effective with both violas giving us lovely mellow tone, whilst the second movement is surprisingly romantic. The final movement is taken at quite a steady tempo but the performers give it an engaging bounce.

The English viola player Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) did much to promote the viola as a virtuoso solo instrument, and he arranged and composed much material for the instrument. Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge, Gustav Holst, Benjamin Dale, York Bowen, and Ralph Vaughan Williams all wrote pieces for him, though he refused to give the premiere of Walton's Viola Concerto, finding the piece too difficult to comprehend at first (the composer Paul Hindemith was the soloist at the premiere).

Tertis' Allegretto is an arrangement for two violas and piano of the trio section of the 'Scherzo' from Schubert's String quartet No. 15 in G, D.887. The resulting work is a gentle filigree of sound with both violas using mutes.

The composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941), who wrote works for Tertis, was an accomplished viola player himself (and he gave his viola to his pupil Benjamin Britten). Bridge wrote two duos for unaccompanied violas, neither of which survives complete. Of these, his Caprice has been edited and completed by the viola player and composer Simon Rowland-Jones. It is a lively and rather restless piece with the two viola lines intertwining, with some lovely textures and an interesting cast to the largely romantic harmonies.

The composer John Hawkins (born 1949) studied with Malcolm Williamson and Elisabeth Lutyens. He wrote At Two (for unaccompanied viola duet) for the present performers. The title comes from Woody Allen's half serious, half humorous remark 'I'm at two with nature'. The first movement 'One', starts off dramatic and intense before moving into more Bartokian territory, with some evocative moments. The second movement, 'Two', intertwining lines are intese, chromatic and rather edgy.

Vadim Borisovsky (1900-1972) played an important role promoting the viola in Russia, and was a founder member of the Beethoven Quartet which premiered 13 of Dmitri Shostakovich's string quartets. Borisovsky's Suite is an arrangement of short dance movements by Giovanni Battista Vitali (1632-1692) for two violas, harp, cello and double bass, based on one of Vitali's Sonate da camera a tre, due violini et violone, Op. 14. Borisovsky's Suite is a sequence of 10 short movements, varying from standard minuets and gavottes to the more exotic zoppa. What gives the work its charm is Borisovsky's use of harp as main continuo instrument, and you feel it would deserve to be better known.

Lionel Tertis's John Dowland arrangement Elizabethan Melody, for viola and cello, was for him and his wife to play, though the cello part works on the viola without any change. Tertis's use of double stopping creates some interesting textures. The final Tertis piece on the disc is one of his own compositions, Variations on a Passacaglia of Handel. The theme comes from Handel's Harpsichord Suite No. 7 in G minor but Tertis's work was inspired by Norwegian composer Johann Halvorsen's (1864-1935) duo for violin and viola on the same theme. Premiered in 1935, the work was included in the 1972 concert celebrating Tertis's 96th birthday at the Wigmore Hall given by the viola section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The piece certainly puts the violas through their paces, and is an attractively varied piece with striking hints of neo-18th century style.

The final work on the disc is Borisovsky's arrangement of Bedrich Benda's Sonata in D major (again with piano accompaniment). The work is probably by Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Benda (1745-1814), violinist at the Prussian court, though the whereabouts and instrumentation of Borisovsky's source are not known, so quite how much is Borisovsky and how much Benda is something of a guess.

The opening 'Allegro risoluto' is lively and charming, whilst the second movement 'Fantasia: Recitativo - Andante' starts with a dramatic recitative before turning into a gentle and elegant movement, though the dramatic recitative comes back more than once to create some real interest. The final movement, 'Rondo: Allegro'  is an attractively lively movement.


The CD booklet includes finely informative notes by Peter Mallinson (with the German translation provided by Matthias Wiesner).

Whilst the music on this disc is perhaps not always of supreme interest, overall the disc gives a lovely picture of the efforts of Tertis and Borisovsky to expand the repertoire of the viola duo, and even the Bach has a link as Tertis is known to have done an arrangement of it, which does not survive. Mallinson and Wiesner are to be commended for exploring this rarely explored repertoire, and they have another disc which is worth exploring too, Music for two violas (also on Meridian) featuring music by Gordon Jacob, Fyodor Druzhnin and Frank Bridge, plus arrangements of Prokofiev, Pytor Bulakhov and Khatchaturian by Vadim Borisovsky.

A Tale of Two Violas
J.S. Bach, arr Iain Farrington - Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat major
Franz Schubert, arr Lionel Tertis - Allegretto
Frank Bridge, edited & completed Simon Rowland Jones - Caprice
John Hawkins - At Two
Giovanni Battista Vitali, arr Vadim Borisovsky - Suite
John Dowland, arr Lionel Tertis - Elizabethan Melody
Lionel Tertis - Variations on a Passacaglia of Handel
Bedrich Benda, arr Vadim Borisovsky - Sonata in D major
Peter Mallinson (viola)
Matthias Wiesner (viola)
Evgenia Startseva (piano)
Anneke Hodnett (harp)
Michael Atkinson (cello)
Nicholas Bayley (double bass)
Recorded 2018, Church of St Edward the Confessor, London
MERIDIAN CDE84652 1CD [71:30]
Available from Amazon

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