Ever since it's inception into the orchestra in the early to mid 17th century, the viola has been (arguably) the must unfairly neglected member of the orchestra. Mozart declared it his favorite instrument, Berlioz wrote a symphony featuring solo viola (Harold en Italie), and under Brahms its lyrical, dark tone was discovered in sonatas and a pair of songs for viola, piano, and alto voice.
But for the most part, the viola was reduced to the role of accompanist. It was particularly damned in orchestral music reaching a low point with the Viennese Strausses.
It was not until the late 19th and mid 20th century that it was fully recognized as a distinct orchestral and solo voice, thanks largely to Paul Hindemith, perhaps the finest violist the world has seen ever seen. Before he established himself as a composer he was known almost entirely for his incredible ability on the instrument. Under Hindemith (and William Primrose, a performer who came slightly afterwards), the viola rose in respectability, and even orchestral viola parts seemed to improve, with the viola no longer being regulated to "third violin" parts.
People as a whole finally recognized the viola for what it was an instrument equal to the violin in terms of fiery technical ability, but with a more contemplative, haunting tone that could accomplish a much more emotionally evocative tone than the violin in the lower ranges with much more conviction.
It is in this environment, that Yuri Bashmet, and the viola concertos presented here were born.
Giya Kancheli named his piece for orchestra, chorus, and solo viola after the mythical River Styx, which was the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead in Ancient Greece. As such, the piece has an ethereal quality to it. Kancheli said that he imagined the viola as a mediator between the two worlds; in essence, the solo viola is the River Styx. The piece itself demonstrates just about everything that is possible on the viola; if you want to find out what the viola can do, this is the piece to listen to, because Kancheli wrote in every range, with a huge variety of colors and textures.
The work is ingenious in its juxtaposition of calm and turmoil. The landscape of the piece is mostly flat until the end, but tonally this is a very unsettling piece because it explores a tonal range not heard anywhere until the late music of Dmitri Shostakovich (most particularly the last three string quartets), and this piece has a lot in common with Shostakovich's music. Also like Shostakovich, Kancheli uses silence as much as he does the assembled instruments, and it is a powerful weapon.
Asking questions of the passage of time, our own mortality, and above all the boundaries between life and death and what happens in between, this work tackles difficult subjects. Does it succeed? Only partially. It does a great job of raising the issues above, but then it skirts them at the end, without really resolving them. One might say that it this is the way it should be, since the River Styx is mythical, and should have some sense of mystery about it. Personally, I think Kancheli missed out on an opportunity to say something much bigger.
Sofia Gubaidulina's viola concerto has no extra-musical connections. While it does not inspire the questions or themes that Kancheli's work does, it is ultimately much more engaging. It begins with a questioning solo viola part that quickly scales up and down the entire range of the instrument, and is joined by a solo string quartet before the full orchestra comes in.
The curious thing about this string quartet is that it is tuned a quarter-tone lower than the rest of the stringed instruments. Since the Western system of scales is based on half-tones, this means that the quartet is placed halfway between one key and the next; audibly neither here nor there, thus contributing to the questioning uncertainty that drives the work.
Throughout the first half of the piece one is given the impression that the orchestra is pressing the solo viola for something. The viola keeps on searching in apparently self-imposed ignorance of the orchestra. As the orchestra grows ever more insistent, the viola tries harder and harder to ignore the orchestra resulting in a quasi-climax about twenty-two minutes in featuring a menacing bass line.
Gubaidulina's skill at orchestral writing is on full display here. She, like the other two Russian composers mentioned uses silence as an instrument independent of the orchestra, and judicious application of the brass and woodwind instruments leads to greater effectiveness and impact when they are used in full force.
What Gubaidulina does in this work is very difficult, because the orchestra is almost never used in its entirety in any one spot. Again, this is like Shostakovich's 1st symphony. The big difference though is that whereas Shostakovich could be said to take the route of the irresponsible teenager, Gubaidulina goes for a more ambitious effect: she makes you feel claustrophobic because of the incredible building of tension without a climax.
And lastly we have the artists themselves: Gubaidulina and Kancheli are both Russians influenced by their Russian predecessor. Yuri Bashmet is Russian. Valery Gergiev is Russian. The orchestra & chorus are both Russian. This is a very good combination, it's like having Adrian Boult conduct Holst, or Evgeny Mravinsky conduct Shostakovich. Additionally, it should be noted that Yuri Bashmet is quite possibly the greatest champion of the viola in our time.
Ultimately this is a great disc to own, but it is not for everyone. When I came upon this CD, I was fairly well versed in the traditional Germanic and Russian musical canon. Frankly, I was dumbfounded, and it took me two or three years to come to terms with the music found here. This could very easily be a shock for many people, but if you're feeling adventurous, or are up for a challenge, this is a good mountain to climb. The work I invested into unlocking this CD was well spent.
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1. Giya Kancheli Styx: for viola, mixed choir, and orchestra
2. Sofia Gubaidulina Concerto for Viola and Orchestra
Yuri Bashmet, Viola
St. Petersburg Chamber Choir
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater (Valery Gergiev)