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!
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: