British Music for Viola and Orchestra (CD review)

Vaughan Williams: Suite for Viola and Orchestra (Group 1); Howells: Elegy; Walton: Viola Concerto; Bowen: Viola Concerto. Helen Callus, viola; string quartet comprising Mesa-Matti Leppanen and David Gilling, violin; Vyvyan Yendoll, viola; David Chickering, cello (principal players of NZSO); Marc Taddei, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.573876.

By Karl W. Nehring

Not only do viola players sometimes lament not having available to them nearly the noteworthy repertoire that composers have heaped upon their colleagues who play the violin and cello, they have to endure hearing knee-slappers such as: "Q: What do you call a violin player who does not practice enough? A: A prospective violist." No wonder that Nobel Prize Laureate Bob Dylan once nearly sang, "I pity the poor viola player, whose strength is spent in vain" and Mr. T once nearly observed, "I pity the fool who takes up the viola."

British-born violist Helen Callus, now a Professor of Viola at Northwestern University, is a virtuosa of that instrument whose playing on this CD should go far to enhance the reputation of the viola and demonstrate that there is some excellent if underappreciated viola repertoire that deserves wider hearing. This is a gorgeous disc from start to finish more than 78 minutes later.

The program opens with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), who wrote some truly memorable music spotlighting the viola, such as Flos Campi (well worth seeking out if you have not yet heard it). The music on this disc consists of the first three movements of his eight-movement Suite for Viola and Orchestra (1934). The opening Prelude features a fairly simple tune with the viola leading out, accompanied mainly by strings, with some nice writing for flute as the music wends it way though just over three minutes. The second movement, Carol, is slower and more pensive in temperament. The winds make an appearance to accompany the viola early on, with the flute stepping up toward the end to intertwine melodically with Callus's viola before the brief two minutes wind down to a quiet ending. The final Christmas Dance is even shorter, but features a boisterous dance tune that makes for a jolly, upbeat ending to the brief but entertaining set. 

Next up is a piece by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) that probably few music lovers have ever encountered, his Elegy (1917) for viola, string quartet, and string orchestra. Callus opens the music with a solo, mournful in mood – as you would expect for an elegy – and is then joined by the orchestral strings. She takes another wistful solo later, and then there is some more mournful music from the quartet before being rejoined by the fuller complement of strings. Some restless churning passages underpinned by the lower strings are then joined by the viola, with the quartet then following. The orchestra comes in very softly, Callus's viola sounds floating over them, as Elegy winds down to a thoughtful, quiet ending. Such a wonderful discovery it is to encounter music of such serene sublimity!

Helen Callas
Following Howells in order of birth is William Walton (1902-1983), a prolific British composer whose Viola Concerto was first composed in 1928-1929, revised in 1936-37, then revised yet again in 1961. Walton targeted the piece for viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis, who declined to play it because it sounded "too modern" for his sensibilities. None other than the composer Paul Hindemith (also a violist) then took up the score and gave the premier performance in 1929. Incidentally, Hindemith's own composition Der Schwanendreher (1935) for viola and orchestra stands today as one of the staples of the repertoire for violists. As played so persuasively by Callus and the NZSO under the direction of Maestro Taddei, it is hard to imagine this music being too modern for the sensibilities of all but the most hidebound listener today. As the slow opening unfolds, the sound of Callus's viola floats above the accompaniment of the orchestra. Continuing on, moments of energy are counterbalanced by moments of quiet introspection, with the sound of the viola at times being augmented by the woodwinds. Toward the end, the viola is joined by a violin, then a flute, until the movement ends with the sound of the viola. The second movement is more spirited and energetic, with more input from the brass section of the orchestra. Callus plays in the higher registers at first, later shifting downward and projecting a restless feeling, the music being punctuated by brass and drums. The third movement begins with something of a marchlike sound and cadence, morphing into more a dance-like feeling. As the movement continues, the musical energy ebbs and flows. Enthusiasm and reflection have their turns, ultimately winding down though some passages of deep tenderness, the piece ending in peaceful repose.

Some time ago I received a Tweet from noted Chicago-area violist Michael Hall suggesting that I might want to give a listen to the Viola Concerto of York Bowen (1884-1961), a composer who was entirely unknown to me. I did a quick search on my phone and found a version that I did a cursory listen to (it was one of those evenings when I had three or four things going on at once so I was not able to focus on the music). Because I had never heard of York Bowen, I assumed that he must be some contemporary composer, and for whatever reason got the idea he was from Australia. I decided I would like to listen to his concerto more seriously sometime but never quite got around to it. When I recently discovered a bag containing a few CDs I had purchased a long while back, you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I found that included, of all things, the Bowen piece. A further surprise was my discovery that rather than being a contemporary Australian composer, he was a British composer who was born in the 19th century (missed it by THAAT much)! 

At any rate, his Viola Concerto, which he completed in 1907, was also written for Lionel Tertis, who apparently found it more to his liking than the Walton, for he gave the piece its premier performance in 1908. A century later, Ms. Callus has given us a stirring performance that has been expertly recorded so that we can enjoy this beautiful, melodic music at our leisure. The first movement opens briskly, with the viola spinning rhapsodic strings of sound that are supplemented by other section of the orchestra as the movement unfolds. The opening theme is echoed later in the movement, which comes to an end with a lively flourish. The middle movement opens with the strings, then the winds, and then the viola makes its presence known. The mood is more serious and resolute, but melody still prevails, the movement ending with Callus playing most tenderly and tranquilly. The third and final movement is more swift and rhythmic. After an exuberant orchestral section that comes to a big climax, Callus spins out an extended solo that feels like a cadenza. The orchestra then returns, the viola picks up the energy, and the concerto comes to an end with a big, exuberant chord. Bravo and Brava!

The sound quality is excellent throughout, with a good sense of depth, no sense of harshness or glare, and a neutral tonal balance. There is not much low bass, but that is a function of the music, not the engineering. At more than 78 minutes in length, this CD offers wonderful value and I recommend it highly to those who love that beautiful British sound. Helen Callus is certainly not a violist who did not practice hard enough – she is a top-tier virtuosa of a wondrous instrument. All hail the mighty viola!


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa