What’s the difference between a violin and a viola? The viola burns longer. How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune? The bow is moving. What’s the definition of perfect pitch? Throwing a viola into a dumpster without hitting the rim. Google the term viola jokes, and you’ll find more than 15,000 results reinforcing the instrument’s longtime status as the Rodney Dangerfield of the classical-music world.
Lately, though, violists have challenged their benighted station, helped by a growing repertoire of works tailored to the instrument’s distinct qualities. Pitched a fifth below the violin and an octave above the cello, the viola produces a warm, vocal sound uniquely its own. And just as mezzo-sopranos, including Joyce DiDonato and Magdalena Kozena, have become the breakout stars of the vocal-music scene, violists have started to emerge as marquee names, in concert and on record.
Kim Kashkashian, a violist who pursued a solo career long before the notion seemed advisable, snared a Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Solo in February for Music for Viola (ECM New Series), her disc of exacting, poetic renditions of György Ligeti’s Sonata for Viola solo and György Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages. That album, issued last September, is a compulsory entry point to the contemporary viola canon. From there, a torrent of recent releases provides divergent paths by which to explore the instrument’s range and repertoire.
Any overview of viola music has to acknowledge Paul Hindemith, a 20th-century German composer and violist who left a substantial body of work for his instrument. Numerous discs of his best pieces are available, including a commanding Kashkashian set and Hindemith’s own recordings. Still, you could hardly wish for a finer balance of rigor, whimsy and soul than that of former Israel Philharmonic principal violist Yuri Gandelsman on Hindemith Retrospective (Blue Griffin), where his heartfelt playing is keenly abetted by Ralph Votapek’s pristine piano work.
Another enduring staple of the repertoire, Rebecca Clarke’s dramatic Sonata for Viola and Piano, provides the springboard for La Viola (MSR Classics), a two-CD collection by Hillary Herndon featuring 20th-century viola pieces composed by women. Alongside pianist Wei-Chun Bernadette Lo, Herndon works her way through attractive obscurities by Minna Keal, Marcelle Soulage, Luise Adolpha Le Beau and others—all of it lent appeal by Herndon’s sweetly soaring tone.
Former Borromeo String Quartet violist Hsin-Yun Huang revels in her instrument’s versatility on Viola, Viola (Bridge). The title comes from an eerily dramatic George Benjamin duo, in which Huang exchanges intimacies with Brentano String Quartet violist Misha Amory, her husband. Elsewhere, Huang is an adventurous trekker in Steven Mackey’s evocative Ground Swell (which she will play with the American Modern Ensemble on March 25 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music); a spinner of elliptical tales in Poul Ruders’s Romances; and a haunting siren in Shih-Hui Chen’s miniconcerto, Remembrance.
Paul Coletti takes the opposite tack on his new CD, Chihara Viola Concerto & Music for Viola (Bridge), focusing on works by Paul Chihara, a veteran composer with extensive Hollywood credentials. The 19-minute concerto is Chihara at his most profound, its melancholy strains, pellucid colors and urgent sweep prompted by a life-threatening health crisis. But everything on the disc—even Redwood, a 1969 duo in a more astringent style—shows Chihara’s skill and imagination; the performances throughout, especially that of the Colburn Orchestra in the concerto, are brilliant.
Like Kashkashian on her award-winning disc, Brooklyn Rider violist Nicholas Cords ventures out completely alone on Recursions (In a Circle), a thoughtfully conceived and executed mix of pieces linked by notions of repetition and elaboration. Bracketed by Biber and Hindemith passacaglias, the album ventures through elaborations on Irish, Byzantine and Armenian themes; Cords the composer debuts with Five Migrations, an inventive set of multitracked miniatures.
Finally, no one since Kashkashian has done more to illustrate the viola’s range and potential than Nadia Sirota, mediagenic violist of choice for a generation of eclectic, genre-flouting creators like Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson. Sirota’s new CD, Baroque (New Amsterdam/Bedroom Community), compiles works by Muhly, Judd Greenstein, Shara Worden, Missy Mazzoli, Paul Corley and Daníel Bjarnason—all expressly crafted to showcase Sirota’s emphatic sound and technological savvy. Luminous, restless and contemplative by turns, the disc proves that the viola is anything but a joke.
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