Ásdís Valdimarsdóttir Explores the “Voice of the Viola”

ZEF9657 - cover

WP 2019 - 2WEINBERG: Clarinet Sonata (arr. for Viola & Piano). KATTENBURG: Viola Sonata: I. Allegro moderato. VREDENBURG: Lamento. SHOSTAKOVICH: Viola Sonata in C / Ásdís Valdimarsdóttir, vla; Marcel Worms, pno / Zefir ZEF9657

This unusual album by violist Ásdís Valdimarsdóttir, titled The Voice of the Viola in Times of Oppression, makes use of the music of four composers who underwent real oppression—at the hands of the Nazis and/or the Soviet Communists. The most famous name here is, of course, Shostakovich, who constantly suffered censorship at the hands of the Soviet “ministers of culture” throughout his life, although ironically this viola sonata was his last composition, reflecting his sadness as being near death from lung cancer. The second most famous name is that of Weinberg, whose Clarinet Sonata, here transcribed for viola, was written in 1945 when the war was at an end.

But what of the other two? Dick Kattenburg (1919-1944) was a young composer who died at Auschwitz. Previously, he was only known for a sonata he wrote at age 17 for flute and piano, but his niece, Joyce Bergman-van Hessen, unearthed a number of other compositions in 2004, among them this lone movement from what was to have been a complete viola sonata. Max Vredenburg (1904-1976), initially studied composition in Holland but in 1926 came under the spell of French impressionists Paul Dukas and Albert Roussel while in Paris. He fled the Nazis in 1941 but was interred in a camp in Indonesia where, thankfully, his life was spared. After the war he moved to Amsterdam where he became a music critic. His Lamento was written in memory of his sister Elsa.

Although the Weinberg sonata was written at a time when he was quite obviously hurting from the loss of family members in the concentration camps, it’s not nearly as intense or aching in expression as many of his later works, but rather more melodic and lyrical than usual for him, although there is a very dramatic episode in the middle of the first movement that clearly speaks of angst. The surrounding music, however, sounds more like Shostakovich in a somewhat playful mood. Valdimarsdóttir plays it with a rich tone and wonderfully shifting moods. The middle movement, using Jewish-tinged harmonies, sounds even more chipper than the first, with bouncing, rolling triplets in the piano part. Again, towards the end of the movement, the music becomes increasingly more bitonal and intense in expression. It is only in the third movement that Weinberg brings in a feeling of isolation, loneliness and a bit of despair, and here it is pianist Marcel Worms who leads these feelings in the way he plays the opening piano-only section of this movement. When the viola enters, it, too plays solo music with a desolate feeling, punctuated by stark piano chords. When the duo finally gets together the tempo increases, the theme is developed, and the mood is a slow crescendo of emotional angst. I tell you, Weinberg didn’t sound like any other composer who ever lived. The man was entirely unique.

Kattenberg’s music, though very well-crafted, reminded me somewhat of Hindemith—not a bad thing, by any means, just not as original in expression as Weinberg. It is clearly a very fine piece, however, well crafted and with surprising and unexpected twists and turns as he develops his themes. It’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to complete this sonata. Despite the strong influence of Hindemith, Kattenberg’s themes are a bit more melodic—think of the Hindemith of Das Marienleben or Mathis der Maler—and uses some unusual harmonic movement in the piano part, alternating between whole tones and chromatic movement. Like so many composers of his time, he used a fair amount of what jazz musicians would later refer to as “rootless chords.” This gaves the music a feeling of not really having a tonal base, though the “feeling” of certain keys come and go as one listens. At the 5:40 mark he used a single-note, double-time bass line in the piano to propel the music to a faster tempo. This is clearly very mature-sounding music for a 24-year-old composer.

Vredenberg’s Lamento is a lyrical piece whose harmonies are clearly borrowed from the French school yet whose top line almost sounds Russian. It is not, however, one of those cuddly-goopy “mood” pieces we hear far too often nowadays, and Vredenberg develops his theme in an interesting manner, even allowing the viola a solo “cadenza” at the two-minute mark. Although the music clearly carries a feeling of loss, there is also a surprisingly strong section that sounds more resolute than submissive, as if Vredenberg was echoing the strong spirit of his departed sister rather than crying in her bier (nice pun, huh?).

The Shostakovich sonata begins with light pizzicato notes from the viola while the piano, entering under him a few bars later, plays high, light single notes as a fill, then in counterpoint to the viola’s broader melody. Considering the sad conditions under which this piece was written, it’s not as self-pitying or breast-beating as this composer could get. The first movement leans towards the minor, but with a stepwise action in the piano’s left hand that keeps the home key shifting. Around 3:30, he even sets up a dancing sort of 6/8 tempo. The second movement is surprisingly chipper, although also in the minor, with a sort of bouncing march rhythm set up by the piano. There are several surprising twists and turns in this movement as the development progresses, and the mood shifts from cool to intense and back again. The final “adagio,” which runs over 12 minutes, is certainly a lament, but for once Shostakovich has internalized his feelings of sadness and minimized the breast-beating and sometimes gauche expression of his earlier years. Perhaps he learned a little something from his good friend Weinberg just as Weinberg picked up a few things from him in his later career.

This is a surprisingly fine disc of original and moving music, much of it either little-known (the Weinberg) or unknown to many classical lovers, played from the heart and, in addition, to all this, beautifully recorded. A real gem!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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