Album Review – Viola Viola

MACKEY: Ground Swell; RUDERS: Romances; BENJAMIN: Viola, Viola; CARTER: Figment IV; CHEN: Remembrance
with Misha Amory, viola; Sarah Rothenberg, piano; American Modern Ensemble/ Steven Mackey; Evergreen Symphony Orchestra/ Gernot Schmalfuss
Bridge 9387
60 minutes

Steven Mackey’s 2007 Ground Swell for viola and ensemble is a seven-part suite of short, bright, and mostly diatonic musical events (nothing 12-tone or overtly serial here) that take advantage of the viola’s ability to have many voices besides the mournful one that seems to permeate much of its solo literature. The ensemble for this piece is made of oboe, clarinet, horn, string quartet, and piano; and Mackey’s excellent orchestration is always transparent. It is possible to hear everything that is going on in this musical kaleidoscope. One of the central “themes” (not themes in any traditional sense) seems to come from a harmonica motive (there isn’t a harmonica listed, but somebody must be playing it), which, along with other Stravinskyisms, gives the piece a bit of a Petrushka feel. The viola solo sections are technically demanding and are filled with all sorts of magical textures. The notes present a narrative that suggests a journey to various places. The feeling I get from the piece is one of being on a train and watching images of landscapes and lights flash by, compelling me to pay attention for short intervals. It is surprising that with later hearings the newness of the experience remains.

Romances, written in 2011 by Danish composer Poul Ruders for this recording, is a group of beautiful miniatures in what I would call free tonality (bordering on free atonality). Each of the pieces is in a distinctly different voice: II seems to ask the violist to use a very slow vibrato while playing the very small number of pitches that move slowly from one to the next, and III calls on the instrument’s brighter colors. I particularly like V, a piece that begins as a monody where the piano and the viola play exactly the same pitches in unison (and so well in tune), and VI, a piece that gives the piano strong articulation in the darkest register to play against the violist’s delicate harmonics and double stops.

‘Viola, Viola,’ a duo the British composer George Benjamin wrote in 1996, sounds more like a string quartet than a mere pair of violas. The writing is baffling (for those of us who like to know how things are written), and Benjamin presents the musical illusion that both violists are playing impossible combinations of strings. The two violists match so well that it is often impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends.

Elliott Carter’s 2004 ‘Figment IV’ sounds like something out of the 20th Century. It uses only a small number of pitches that repeat in sequence a few times, but Huang sure makes a lot of music with them.

Shih-Hui Chen’s 2005 ‘Remembrance’ … seems to “remember” snippets from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring… The viola has several passages that call for extended pizzicato, which, I imagine benefit from having a microphone and an excellent recording engineer. They certainly benefit from having a violist like Huang, who does an excellent job with the demands of this piece, though I wish it was a better piece.

The Dallas Morning News

The music was really contemporary – none more than two years old – for Voices of Change’s Sunday-evening concert at Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium. On first hearing, none of the four works leapt out as deathless art. But later and wiser counsels may decide otherwise, and each offered listening pleasure.

The highest-profile name on the program was John Adams, whose Son of Chamber Symphony was getting only its second performance since its November 2007 premiere in San Francisco. But the piece that most grabbed my ears was the two-year-old Shu Shon Key (Remembrance) by Taiwan-born Shih-Hui Chen, who’s on the faculty of Rice University in Houston.

Dr. Chen’s piece, which exists in two versions, was given in an edition for solo viola and six other instrumentalists (winds, strings, piano and percussion). The dreamy opening suggests late Debussy with Asian accents, and more “advanced” harmonies. Then, over string pluckings, flute and clarinet weave long-breathed melodies, after which the whole ensemble comes alive, like a jungle at sunrise.

By Scott Cantrell
March 3, 2008

Chicago Tribune

Steven Mackey’s “Ground Swell” grew out of a similar disconnect between ends and means, but the conflict worked itself out more fruitfully. Threads of Americana emerged now and then, but they were colored in unexpected ways. Exhilaration was the guiding force at times, while other passages seemed overcome by vertigo and fatigue.

The sophisticated orchestration certainly helped Mackey’s cause, as did the superb artistry of violist Hsin-Yun Huang. Her tone was rich and earthy, and she negotiated each phrase with remarkable agility and expressive acumen. After some early imbalances between soloist and ensemble, Burns and company settled into an impressively authoritative reading.

The most vivid memories of the piece were its risky, lopsided proportions. The opening movement (“Approach to Sea”) was cut brutally short just as its material began to take shape, while the finale (“Sailing Away”) was leisurely, loose and gently repetitive.

By Michael Cameron
March 20, 2008

Boston Globe

[Hsin-Yun Huang’s] recent Williams Hall recital… showed – above and beyond the high technical command, which the ear quickly took for granted – a heartening flexibility, keenness, alertness to context…. In Bach’s Suite No. 6, the prevailing sound was of sweetness, fullness, fleetness. In the musical results she generated tension that took its force from letting you hear frankly how Bach had composed this music. The sublime joinery had its voice, likewise the sense of those ghostly, implied harmonies. None of it was self-consciously, point-scoringly “free”; and for the best of reasons, it didn’t have to be. A rather firmer manner was just what the doctor ordered for the Sonata for Viola and Piano (1939) of Paul Hindemith… Hsin-Yun Huang and Thomas Sauer left no doubt that this was top-drawer Hindemith – lean, athletic, zestful, and saying yes to life.

Der Tagesspiegel

…things improved, however, from piece to piece, for which not a little credit is due to viola virtuoso Hsin-Yun Huang, born in Taipei in 1971… Glamorous as she looks, her playing is easily a match for her appearance. She presented Bartok’s Viola Concerto – hardly an unproblematic work, surviving as it does only in fragmentary sketches – in a seamlessly expressive dramatic arch, characterized by an emphatically rhetorical brilliance and a warm tone, which flashed forth, virtually violin-like,
now and then; so that the fragmentary nature of the piece became a background issue…

[Translated from German]

Berliner Morgenpost

Taiwanese-born Hsin-Yun Huang gave an energy-filled account of the solo part in Bartok’s Viola Concerto … the violist grouped moments of brilliance, lyricism and expressivity around the central, glowing Adagio religioso.

[Translated from German]