Summary for the Busy Executive: Instrument invisible.
I've never understood the antipathy to the viola. I get viola jokes but have yet to learn why they come up in the first place. I usually prefer the sound of the viola to that of the violin, which to me squeaks. I admit the viola is difficult to write for mainly because of its range. It doesn't stand out at the low end, like the cello, or at the high end, like the violin. Consequently, composers tend to bury it in the middle and turn it into a utility instrument, filling in textures and harmonies. Brahms, attracted to middle sonorities, wrote especially well for the viola, and of course Mozart, Berlioz, and Strauss gave the viola its chance to shine as a solo instrument with the orchestra. Nevertheless, the viola really comes into something near its own mainly in the 20th century.
Here's a fun fact, however. Beethoven was a violist good enough to earn his living as an orchestral player during his early career in Bonn. For violists, the fact that he never completed a work featuring the instrument comes as a huge missed opportunity. Paul Silverthorne, principal viola of the London Symphony Orchestra, has tried to remedy this, and the CD documents the results.
The program opens with a teaser – the first 8 measures (perhaps the only; no trace of any more) from a viola sonata. Comically brief, the excerpt takes us to a cadence on the dominant and disappears – reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote stepping off a high mesa.
I knew a few horn players in school, and all were working on the Beethoven sonata in their time away from the Hindemith. Consequently, I got to know the Beethoven quite well, and the horn sound in that work lodged in my mind's ear. At first thought, Silverthorne's idea to turn it into something for viola seems a good one, since both instruments "sound" in roughly the same range – "alto," in other words. But something dissatisfied me. Perhaps the viola simply hadn't the penetration of the horn. Consequently, I listened to my favorite horn players in the work, the Three Bs: Baumann, Bloom, and Brain. It dawned on me that I didn't particularly think much of the original either, although it's always dangerous to dump on a Beethoven piece. Even here, it comes down to the first movement, which strikes me as Beethoven on automatic. Certainly, one doesn't get those majestic spans of argument that usually mark a Beethoven first movement. To me, it's more sonatina than sonata. The transcription itself seems fine, and Silverthorne's strong performance makes as good a case for the work as I can imagine.
The Notturno reworks a Serenade for string trio, Beethoven's Op. 8. Although Beethoven didn't transcribe it, it has the distinction of Beethoven's criticisms and "corrections." Beethoven fobbed the work off on somebody else, all the while claiming not to have the patience for that sort of thing. Perhaps he temporarily forgot his own rearrangements of his previous work. Typically, he complained of the finished product and provided a few rewrites to the publisher. He also refused to be listed as the author of the arrangement, with some justification, because Kleinheinz didn't do all that well. Essentially, Kleinheinz gave the viola the viola part of the Serenade. Thus, when the viola shines in the Serenade, it shines in the arrangement. When it takes a subordinate role in the Serenade, it tends to stay in the background of the Notturno. Unfortunately, the musical interest often pretty obviously lies elsewhere, and the work becomes a Notturno for piano and viola. It's a shame, too, because, while hardly top-flight Beethoven, the original Serenade brims full of both charm and surprise. For example, it turns out that the theme of the penultimate theme-and-variations movement is the theme of the opening march disguised, so that a recap of the march as the final movement becomes the last "variation." So the score doesn't lack interest. In a really good arrangement, the Notturno would make a fine addition to the scant viola repertory.
The jewel of the CD, however, is the Grand Duo, a killer re-working of Beethoven's Septet. I may prefer the viola version to the Septet itself. Friedrich Herrmann, who provided the bones of the adaptation, studied violin at Leipzig with Ferdinand David (who premièred the Mendelssohn concerto). He also studied theory and composition with Mendelssohn, but mainly with Moritz Hauptmann, also at Leipzig. Silverthorne has gone over the arrangement and made some substantive changes. He went to Beethoven's own arrangement, the Piano Trio, Op. 38. The Septet enjoyed great popularity throughout Beethoven's career. The arrangement for more accessible forces provided an opportunity for extra cash, and Beethoven was nobody's fool, despite his professed disdain for arranging. Silverthorne studied the piano writing of the trio, feeling rather strongly Beethoven's unique sense of chord spacing. He also replaced some translations to the piano of string passages in Herrmann (more "literal") with Beethoven's adaptations in the trio. I think the result a masterpiece, at least the equal of Beethoven's original and a significant new opportunity for violists. Indeed, I think it has the stature of at least some of the violin sonatas. Of all the works on this program, this one gives you the strongest sense of Beethoven in the room, mainly because it treats the viola as an equal partner. The long movements in particular have that tidal roll of argument we associate with the best of this composer.
The Grand Duo begins with the Haydn trick of somber introduction followed by "happy" allegro. The Septet, after all, is early Beethoven. But even here, Beethoven spins the ploy his way, since the intro works with the bones of the allegro's main theme, a strategy that will reach its height in the fourth piano concerto. Silverthorne aptly describes the movement as confident. Beethoven may have climbed higher in something like the "Hammerklavier," but here he still ambitiously ascends and brings it off with surefootedness. The development in particular contains some ear-stretching modulations which Beethoven achieves without strain. An adagio follows, at this early date more like a slow Mozart aria than the type of adagio we tend to associate with Beethoven. Even here, however, Beethoven puts in twists, in the form of "extra" measures that break up the one-two symmetry of Classical-era phrasing.
The main theme of the minuet third movement comes from an earlier piano sonata (misleadingly labeled #20 and Op. 48/2; written in 1796, published in 1805). Beethoven extends it differently in the Septet. It basically provides a "breather" after the first two movements and before we plunge into the theme-and-variations fourth. The theme, a delightful toy march, anticipates Tchaikovsky by decades. Also Tchaikovsky-before-the-fact are the frequent and inventive shifts of texture and color, even in this relatively black-and-white setting. The variations, if anything, outdo even Haydn in their byplay and wit. Beethoven, of course, would put some of his finest thoughts into variation form, but even here one notes a stretching out of idiom, a sense that the composer finally has room enough to play in. The end sets the reader up for something tragic and quickly leaves with a shrug and a grin.
I can't really call the scherzo my favorite Beethoven genre because that rather stupidly ignores too much of his output. Let's just say that I smile in anticipation of one. The fifth-movement scherzo, although on a small scale, displays that paradoxical balance, to which Beethoven alone seems to have held the secret, of Olympian energy and light-heartedness.
The finale's architecture broadly mirrors that of the first movement. It begins with a downright dark funeral march. The following rondo once again flips the mood 180 degrees – a lively presto with jolts of momentary odd chords, manic counterpoint, "extra" measures that fracture expectations of where phrases end, and nudgy off-beats. The viola gets a cadenza (played by the violin in the original Septet). The final measures make an especially brilliant effect.
One of the album's photographs shows Silverthorne exactly how I picture him – a player in easy, loving command of his instrument, the viola an extension of his body and the bow of his fingers. He seems not to hold the instrument, but to levitate it. Right now, he's far and away my favorite violist. He adapts his tone to the music he performs and sounds one way for Shostakovich, another for Vaughan Williams, and yet another for Brahms. Here, his tone is clearer and his articulation crisper, appropriate for the relatively lean textures and strong rhythms of Beethoven. David Owen Norris provides able accompaniment. The piano sound (an 1860s Blümel, borrowed from David Wilson-Johnson) is both brighter and warmer than its modern counterpart. Despite my reservations, this CD may well wind up as one of my favorites of the year. The Grand Duo alone justifies the price, and the rest is by no means cheap lagniappe. Toccata Press will soon publish Silverthorne's transcription of the Horn Sonata and his edition of the Grand Duo. Violists, take note.
Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.