Giorgio Koukl | 9 JAN 2023
American violist Brett Deubner has released an all-solo viola CD called HOPE, featuring works of five living composers.
While this is a CD destined for a very specialized audience sector, it is also an interesting glimpse into a contemporary way of conceiving solo viola works, notoriously one of the most challenging tasks in music.
In the past, many composers have used the viola as a solo instrument. To cite only a prominent few: Hector Berlioz with his Harold in Italy, Bèla Bartòk, Paul Hindemith, William Walton, Richard Strauss, and Bohuslav Martinu. But typically, composers featured solo viola in partnership with an orchestra, or at least a piano, so music for solo viola, unaccompanied, is quite unusual. (Hindemith’s four unaccompanied Sonatas for viola, for example.)
We now turn to the scores of Judith Markovich, Polina Nazaykinskaya, Andrew List, Maurizio Bignone, and Tommie Haglund heard on this CD. All of these five composers have chosen a quite traditional approach, delivering some solidly crafted music. These may not be works that will change the course of musical history, but it is well-written music and mostly pleasant to hear.
Logically the soloist here is the real hero. It must be said right at the beginning that Mr. Deubner is an excellent violist with great capacities of dynamic contrasts, bowing techniques, and an elegant, slightly penetrant but always well-tuned sound. His recording technicians captured this well. It certainly serves the various composers well.
The first three tracks are a work by Judith Markowich called Three Miniatures (2020). This is a very traditionally written score, often using the lower part of the viola range, melodic and slightly melancholic. Maybe some more 20th-century bowing techniques would have added more “spicy” details to the score, but those are miniatures, so probably nothing dramatic was intended.
Track four is a work by Polina Nazaykinskaya called “Hope” Sonata-Fantasia (2021). At nearly eleven minutes, it is the longest score of the disc. Maybe this is also the origin of the main problem with this composition. Ms. Nazaykinskaya is writing music as if the whole 20th century never existed, and without knowing the composer’s name, one would think of some Spohr, Pleyel, or even Reicha. Also, here the expressive possibilities of a viola are rarely used, if at all.
The next work is from Andrew List, called Three Hymns to Ra (2022), with “Evening Prayer,” “Sacrifice,” and “Rebirth” being the names of the individual parts. Here, especially in the “Sacrifice,” virtuosity finally comes to the surface, a good opportunity for Mr. Deubner to show his technical abilities.
Maurizion Bignone wrote his “Obsession” Sonata in 2016. The three movements are “La Vecchia dell Aceto” (“The old lady from vinegar”), “Luminous,” and “Obsession.” This is definitely the best score of the disc. It is also exceptionally well played. Finally, some good development skills are applied, and the score is logical and pleasant. The presto passages are especially challenging but very effective, giving the listener a real thrill.
The final work is a transcription from an older work for violoncello by the composer Tommie Haglund called Cielo Notturno. This single-movement work was arranged for viola by the composer in 2015. Its rarefied beginning reflects well the idea of a nocturnal sky and all its stars. The subsequent development gets some good moments but is generally less effective than the precedent work.
All in all, this CD is a good example of some fine viola solo music that can be enjoyed by listeners who like melodic, partly dreamy music and do not wish to embark on experimental adventures. It must be underlined once again that the soloist is a real master of his instrument. ■
- Brett Deubner: brettdeubner.com