|Matthew Lipman received a coveted Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2015.|
Concert artists playing the viola are relatively rare, and the instrument's central position in the symphony orchestra and string quartet only allows its familiarity to extend so far. As a solo voice, it mimics the cello in its low register and as it ascends, it sounds like a beefier violin." Ascent" is a good name for the recording, and not just because various versions of rising, in spirits, pitch, and movement, bear central significance to the program.
By the time the listener reaches the last track, Lipman's arrangement of Franz Waxman's "Carmen Fantasie," there has been ample evidence of the violist's virtuosity, in addition to the solidity of his six-year partnership with Kramer. The program note deftly indicates the naturalness of the viola in fleshing out this sketchy (but essentially pertinent) portrait of one of the most well-loved mezzo-soprano roles, the Spanish gypsy torn between commitment and freedom. (The range in Spain is plainly the refrain.)
Lipman and Kramer sweep invitingly through the fantasized medley. The "fate" music sounds quite idiomatic on the viola; the penetrating harmonics serve the introduction to the Seguidilla particularly well. Throughout, the viola's character across its wide range is well exploited.
Among the disc's other works are two with special claims to attention: One is a short, slight piece by Dmitri Shostakovich, discovered decades after his death in 1975. Impromptu for Viola and Piano, op. 33, focuses on the most solid part of the viola range. The conservative material has a couple of harmonic twists that will evoke the composer's better-known work, but the expressive spectrum is conservative and romantic. It's a good encore piece for those rare occasions in which a violist plays a recital or one of the relatively few worthy concertos for the instrument.
A centerpiece of such a recital might well be Robert Schumann's "Marchenbilder," op. 113. These four "fairy tale pictures" (to translate the title) lie at the heart of the composer's familiarity with fantasy, aspects of which are inseparable from the mental illness that killed him. Lipman and Kramer maintain a firm partnership while fully characterizing the pieces — slowing the tempo together at apt points, displaying their rhythmic acuity (in "Lebhaft"), and modulating foreground and background responsibilities in the agile "Rasch." The finale, with its evocation of folk music, is remarkable for the steadiness with which Lipman enunciates the sotto voce melody.
|Composer Clarice Assad|
The tentative cast and mood of confinement in "Crisalidas" suggests the insect in chrysalis. Tense harmonics come in to hint at the aspirational progress of the butterfly's development, which will burst forth in "Danca das Barboletas." But that's only after a calm, free opening section yields to a rhythmically enlivened, fast shimmer of piano chords and the emergence of viola assertiveness in a robust dance that brings forward the vernacular of the composer's homeland effectively.
"Ascent"'s other work by a living composer is Garth Knox's "Fuga libre," an unaccompanied piece assembled initially from fragments that bear increasing expressive heft. Double stops and more intense figuration enter the picture, along with pizzicato. The freedom implied by the title gradually overcomes the structure, and there's an episode with imitation feedback of the sort popularized on electric guitar by Jimi Hendrix. As this subsides, there is a more wispy use of fragments before linked repeated figures set up a strong climax.
That kind of expressive freedom remains more within a romantic context in the disc's opening work, Phantasy for Viola and Piano, op. 54, by the English composer York Bowen (1854-1961). Attractive in many respects, the composition strikes me as too diffuse, but some scattering of inspiration perhaps fulfills the "fantasy" assignment Bowen undertook for a 1918 competition. It was still a distinct treat to become acquainted with a composer previously unknown to me, and the duo acquits itself marvelously well in following every twist and turn of the heart-on-sleeve score with technical and expressive unanimity.