David Jaeger’s Viola Music

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JAEGER: Sonata, “Tristan and Isolde.” Viola Sonata No. 1. 6 Miniatures for Solo Viola. Constable and the Spirit of the Clouds. Sarabande. Favour / Elizabeth Reid, violist; Alison Bruce Cerutti, pianist / Redshift Records (no number), available for purchase on Bandcamp

Without repeating all the purple prose spewed in the publicity blurb about composer David Jaeger’s “rare, legendary status” in Canada or his “groundbreaking” music, what I was able to glean from this is that Jaeger (1947 – ) is a Toronto-based composer who, in 1971, was also a founding member of the Canadian Electronic Ensemble. This CD is scheduled for release on February 3, 2023.

Such a pedigree would indicate that Jaeger’s music is ultra-modern and possibly quit edgy, but in fact his Tristan and Isolde sonata is quite tonal, almost retro but for some moments of harmonic dissonance here and there. This does not, however, mean that his music is uninteresting. On the contrary, I found this sonata to be extremely interesting, including some high-range “whistle tone” playing for the solo viola. My one issue with the performance is that although violist Reid clearly has the technical command of her instrument to play it, she only imparts a little of the intensity that Jaeger calls for in his score. For the most part, Reid is a placid, even “cool” player who simply doesn’t give much in terms of expression.

Both the first and especially the second movement of this sonata, oddly enough, seemed not to channel Wagner but Native American music with its open harmonies and relatively simple melodic structure. It is in those harmonic excursions and his way of playing with rhythm that Jaeger modifies this style to make it more personal. Overall, I found this a nice sonata if not a very gripping one, but as noted above Reid’s cool approach to the music subverts Jaeger’s intentions to a point. I could easily imagine this music played with much more intensity, which in turn would make it more interesting. (I should also mention that Reid is not alone in this. Pianist Alison Bruce Cerutti plays in a delicate style that has little emotion as well.)

In the moody introduction to the Viola Sonata No. 1, Cerutti does a nice job of establishing a somewhat doleful ambience but, again, stops short of emotional outpouring, which is especially evident when the music becomes louder and more insistent. Reid, I noticed, plays with too much straight tone, and this too robs the music of real feeling. I know that the artists will undoubtedly be upset with me for saying all this, but it must be said because these are (to the best of my knowledge) first recordings, and other violists out there should seriously consider playing these works because they are accessible to average listeners while still having modern features that appeal to more sophisticated minds. There are a few moments in the second movement where Reid and Cerutti play with some energy, but energy is not always emotion and their reading falls quite short of Jaeger’s movement title of “Allegro bizarro.” There’s just too much of a feeling of two MIDIs playing the music rather than two flesh-and-blood human beings.

The 6 Miniatures are, of course, somewhat slighter music but still good enough to be interesting. and would surely be more interesting yet id they had a better interpreter. Jaeger uses some open chords here and establishes what I would call a tonal bias without being centered in a particular key; this is especially evident in the fast, mercurial second miniature, although one always gets the feeling that Jaeger is going to suddenly inject neighboring or not-so-neighboring harmonies at any moment. In the third piece, he also uses a great many portamento passages suggesting microtonal slides though never really moving too far in that direction.

Constable and the Spirit of the Clouds is particularly interesting for its inclusion of electronic sounds with the solo viola. These are primarily background sounds, emulating what I would describe as a “ghost orchestra” playing behind the soloist. Jaeger is considerably different from the majority of composers for electronics in that he creates rich blends and suggests more than what the ear actually picks up. (It’s hard to describe, but once you’ve heard it you’ll know what I mean.) In this piece, at least, Jaeger also avoids injecting any particular rhythmic meter or movement into the electronic sounds, leaving that entirely up to the solo viola part. It makes for some fascinating listening. Towards the end of the piece, he also adds some electronic ambience around the solo viola, which “binds” its sound to the goings-on in the background. The last two pieces, Sarabande and Favour, are also interesting works. In Sarabande Jaeger includes passages in which the violist is called upon to play pizzicato while at the same time playing legato passages…quite tricky! (Unless, of course, one part is pre-recorded.) And there are also some electronic sounds going on in the background as well, this time a bit more like “white noise” than real music.

This CD clearly deserves to be heard in order to judge the quality of the music, which is quite fine. We cannot throw out the baby with the bath water here, and Jaeger’s music struck me as too good to just be heard in these particular performances.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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