This disc is no “viola joke.” The Elegant Viola is much more than elegant in the hands of Yizhak Schotten, former principal of the Cincinnati and Houston Symphonies, who serves up an eclectic and electric program ranging from Bach – J.S.and W.F – to Vaughan Williams and Michael Colgrass.
The British have created a special place for the nut-brown sound of the viola. It is the most-favored voice in British film and TV drama, used to portray reflection and melancholy. No P.D. James adaptation is without a prominent viola background . The lovely pastoral Vaughan Williams Suite for Viola and Orchestra was composed in 1934 for the great British violist Lionel Tertis. The instrument ideally captures this composer’s wistful longing for the British countryside.
Schotten is technically secure, his tonal range is enormous. He imparts a passion to his playing, seldom encountered with this instrument. His performance of a Kodaly transcription of the J.S. Bach Chromatic Fantasia is an eight-minute flawless display of Bach pyrotechnics. The Sonata in C Minor by W. F. Bach is ably partnered on the harpsichord and within its three brief finely crafted movements, is both stately and sprightly.
The final eighteen minute selection is Variations for Four Drums and Viola by the Chicago born Michael Colgrass. Performing as a percussionist in NYC with several symphony orchestras as well as with Dizzy Gillespie and The Modern Jazz Quartet, Mr. Colgrass composed this set of five distinct variations in 1957. Following a recitative -like introduction, the viola, as the ‘cello in Bloch’s Schelomo, “narrates” this work. It is abetted by four small drums tapped by uncovered or covered timpani mallets. There is a definite Middle Eastern feel to this piece, which contains pungent as well as lyrical sonorities amidst wide ranging rhythmic shifts.The final brief section recaps the variations, then adds another, before a stunning climax.
For the VW Suite, Schotten is joined by The Slovak Radio Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. The recording engineer accords the viola a central position in front of the orchestra. Unfortunately, little hall ambience is provided. The miking of both soloist and orchestra is too prominent for my taste. The remaining solo and ensemble recordings, however, present appropriate instrumental balance and soundstage.
For string lovers this is a very well-played and generally well recorded sampling of an instrument, whose beauty, versatility and power is often given short shrift.
– Ronald Legum