Wednesday 28 August 2013

Review: Complete Sonatas for Viola Solo - Julia Rebekka Adler and Jascha Nemtsov

In short, this release is a delight for all listeners, whether new to Weinberg, or specialists. 

Having borrowed a copy of this excellent two-CD set several years ago, I was delighted to have a chance at a more thorough listen. Adler's virtuosity and commitment to the repertoire shine throughout, backed by Jascha Nemtsov on piano for two opening works which serve as a prelude for the body of the album, Weinberg's four solo Viola Sonatas.

The choice of programming couldn't be better. Weinberg wrote a large body of works for solo string instruments, including the largest opus for solo cello by a single composer. In this collection, in addition to the Viola Sonatas (the latter three of which are here recorded for the first time), there is an arrangement of the Clarinet Sonata, Op. 28, for Viola and Piano, and an ultra-rare chance to hear a work by the celebrated Violist, Fyodor Druzhinin, in his Viola Sonata (also a world premiere).

Disc 1
Weinberg - Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 28 (Viola transcription)
Druzhinin - Sonata for Viola Solo
Weinberg - Sonata for Viola Solo, No. 1, Op. 107

The Clarinet Sonata is one of Weinberg's most popular works, understandable from its easily-accessible language and charming opening movement. In Viola transcription, the warmth of the solo line is heavily accentuated, as well as the soaring qualities present in the adagio third movement.

Druzhinin was perhaps most famous for his position as Violist with the Beethoven Quartet, replacing his teacher Vadim Borisovsky in 1964. He was also head of the Viola department at the Moscow Conservatoire for more than twenty years, with notable pupils including Yuri Bashmet. Shostakovich dedicated his final work, the Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147, to Druzhinin. The sonata clearly demonstrates Druzhinin's mastery for the instrument, as well as a keen sense of drama in composition.

Finally, then, the first of Weinberg's Viola Sonatas to round off the disc. Weinberg's predates Shostakovich's Sonata, as it was written in July 1971. It is also dedicated to Druzhinin (hence the comment on the excellent programming!) All of Weinberg's sonatas for solo viola date from his later years, and display tendencies to be found across his later style, employing a tough and abstract musical language. This can be heard in the opening movement, though Adler exploits the melodic qualities to their full potential. The pace quickens with the second movement, before side-stepping for a more contemplative adagio third movement. However, it is in the Allegro fourth movement that Adler's virtuoso playing really comes into its own for the first time on this album. A clock-like pulsing begins that remains insistent through the whole of the movement, slowly expanding in register, leading to a multitude of technical effects. Triplets emerge out of the pulsing, soon replaced by semiquaver flourishes, which themselves expand into hugely demanding quadruple stops and runs of harmonic notes. Adler's playing communicates a great control and clam, providing a thrilling conclusion to the first disc.

Disc 2
Weinberg - Sonata for Viola Solo, No. 2, Op. 123
Sonata for Viola Solo, No. 3, Op. 135
Sonata for Viola Solo, No. 4, Op. 136

Weinberg's Second Sonata for Solo Viola was written in August 1978 and is dedicated to Dmitry Shebalin. Shebalin (son of Vissarion Shebalin, the composer) was most famous for succeeding Rudolf Barshai as Violist for the Borodin Quartet. Shebalin was a pivotal member of the ensemble for over forty years. Weinberg had a close working relationship with the Borodin Quartet; no fewer than five of his quartets were premiered by the ensemble, and he dedicated three to them as a group - the 8th, 13th and 17th (the last on the occasion of the group's 40th anniversary). Shebalin passed away earlier this month, at the age of Eighty-Three.
    The second Viola Sonata is perhaps more approachable than the First, as the almost-excessive virtuosic demands are absent. It is also, however, more embedded in Weinberg's later style, where his melodic focus moves into a more abstract territory. A new sense of fragility is introduced in this work, which comes across excellently in the warm recording tone.

   The Third and Fourth Sonatas were written just over a year apart - the former in August 1982, the latter in December 1983. They were given consecutive opus numbers, and both are dedicated to Mikhail Tolpïgo, also a student of Borisovsky, like Druzhinin, but also principal viola of the USSR Academic Symphony Orchestra. The Third Sonata is an extremely demanding work across five movements - of course, Adler takes such challenges in her stride, as well as hinting at the insular fragility that will be further emphasised in the Fourth Sonata. The later work is much more subdued, but also has many beautiful moments, especially in the final movement.

Overall, then, this CD represents a fine set. Adler's playing is warm and controlled throughout, showing refinement in the dark lyricism of Weinberg's later style and virtuosity in the challenging demands of Weinberg's solo writing. For specialists' interest, the programming couldn't be better and the CD packaging is excellent, in keeping with the Neos label's other Weinberg releases. I heartily recommend this recording, especially as an introduction into the sound world of Weinberg's extensive writing for solo strings.

Links of interest:

Album to buy on

Concert recordings from Adler's own website, including a live performance of the second sonata

Dmitry Shebalin, obituary (The Strad) - included for topical relevance



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