If you’ve attended a music school, or even a music camp, you’ve heard a lot of viola jokes (not to worry, there are jokes about most other instruments as well). I’ve been mildly amused by a few, but I never felt the inclination to pick on the viola – like Mozart, I’m particularly fond of the instrument. I love the range along which it lies, the baritone lows to the feathery highs, and especially the woody, throaty timbre which to my ears is closest to reaching the special vocalized quality that makes the gamba so lovely. Now we are fortunate to have a new recording that renews the case for the instrument, “first things first” from Nadia Sirota on the continuously impressive New Amsterdam label.
This is a recital album, a series of new works that place the viola at the center, and although it’s not flawless, the whole is in this case greater than the sum of its parts. Sirota’s playing has a great deal to do with this success; her sound is full-bodied, her intonation is excellent and she plays everything with conviction and musicality. The other important element is that the recording is extremely well assembled. It is a real album, with the pieces placed in such a way that the weaknesses are lessened and the strengths reinforced, and I would credit both Sirota and co-producer Judd Greenstein with this.
Greenstein is also the composer of the most successful works on the album, the solo piece ‘Escape’ and the concluding work for viola accompanied by the Chiara String Quartet, ‘The Night Gatherers.’ The latter piece, which brings the album to a rich and satisfying conclusion, is a lyric and romantic minor key ballade full of beautiful, lush sounds, exquisitely crafted and performed. ‘Escape’ is the literal and aesthetic centerpiece of the album and demonstrates the craft of composition at its best. Greenstein starts with minimal melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material; a repeated, accented descending minor third, then he composes. He moves the interval around, pairs it, adds a transitional note and rhythm, expands it, takes it apart, develops a range of dynamics and textures. He turns a fragment into an involved, and involving, solo work, full of emotional and intellectual intensity. The connection between where the music began and where it is and is going is always in our ears. It’s a tour-de-force work and a tour-de-force performance by Sirota.
Two other composers are featured on the album, Nico Muhly and Marcos Balter. Muhly’s three pieces, ‘Duet No. 1, Chorale Pointing Down,’ and etudes ‘1’ and ‘1A’ represent the spectrum of strength and weakness within. The first piece, the album opener adds Clarice Jensen on cello and is bracing and fascinating. It opens with a dramatic gesture, forceful, minor key and dissonant intervals, and then proceeds to take that material apart and build new music from it, music different in style and emotional tone. The turns and transformations are natural and interesting – this is another fine, satisfying work. The etudes are the opposite, studies in rhythm that try and make too much out of weak material. The problem is the rhythm itself, a sharply dotted figure that has some overdubbed accompaniment but which never changes (is never actually studied), and is itself is awkward and slightly irritating, sounding too much like and attempt to notate swing. Compared with ‘Escape,’ these are just at the level of quasi-improvisatory sketches, not finished pieces.
Balter’s ‘Ut’ and ‘Live Water’ are studies as well, but a successful ones. A piece that is truly an etude should present something to be explored and offer some possibilities. These are basically simple but sonically evocative works about the possible qualities of sound that the instrument can create, and sound environments in which to place the viola. They are full of timbres; glassy, rich, ghostly, plucked and sawed strings and enhanced with some signal processing and, on ‘Live Water,’ a whispered voice. They are meditative dreamscapes and serious explorations of the instrument and work as material that brings together the strands of exploration and meditation that are the final, lasting sensations of this fine album.
As a postscript, in my library I now have a decent sampling of New Amsterdam releases, some I’ve already written about and others that I’ve had just for myself. The music that I’ve heard covers a range from sophisticated and experimental pop to contemporary chamber music and jazz big band and all of it is clearly selected and prepared with a catholic attitude and excellent taste for what makes each an excellent representative of its style and thinking. This is an impressive and exciting beginning, and my admiration goes out to all who work at the label.