Garth Knox, Morton Feldman, and a Viola Walk Into a Bar...

C. Michael Bailey By

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What's the difference between a violin and a viola?

Well, take your pick: (a) the viola burns longer (b) the viola holds more beer (c) you can tune the violin.

The poor viola. She does not even get a piece of a break. The viola is the least understood and respected of orchestral stringed instruments. Existing somewhere between the diva violin and the prima donna cello, the viola is like the mezzo soprano, always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Sure, Mozart composed his Sinfonia Concertante, KV 364, for the viola, but not without her pop tart sister, the violin being part of the picture. And Berlioz composed his Harold en Italie for Paganini to play on his precious Mendelssohn 1731 Stradivari; but Paganini complained that Berlioz had composed too many rests and never played the piece.

The embattled viola bobs to the surface in two manifestations representing two different musical eras on two recordings. The first is Garth Knox's ECM debut, D'Amore, featuring the viola's Baroque precursor, the viola d'amore, in both baroque and modern settings. The second is the modern instrument as part of Morton Feldman's manifold composition The Viola in My Life. Collectively, these two discs provide a historic panorama of the beleaguered instrument in composition specific to it.

Garth Knox, Agnes Vesterman
ECM Records

Garth Knox's D'Amore proves to be an artistically diverse offering, intriguing on several levels. First, Knox is a noted violist with the Arditti Quartet, who have recorded widely for ECM, mostly 20th century classical music. Second, for the present recording, Knox performs on a baroque viola precursor, the viola d'amore. Third, Knox alternates modern compositions for this ancient instrument with period appropriate pieces, offering a razor-blue juxtaposition of new and old.

The traditional viola d'amore usually possesses six or seven playing strings, which are bowed like a violin. There also exist an equal number strings located beneath the main strings and the fingerboard. These secondary strings are called sympathetic strings; while not played directly, they vibrate in sympathy with the notes being bowed. Sympathetic strings add a warm harmonic body to the instrument's sound. It is this characteristic that Knox takes most advantage of in his performance.

Knox's own composition, "Malor me bat" properly introduces the disc with a modern piece composed in the ostensible old style and performed with a virtuosic flair. It is both tunefully fractured and emotive, illustrating the success of this viola and its baroque relatives in performing medieval folk music. Knox follows "Malor" with Marin Marais' 1685 composition "Les Folies Espange" arranged by Knox of viola d'amore and cello. The two pieces compare favorably and realize a certain functional empathy.

Knox's treatment of Roland Moser's 2006 composition "Manners of Speaking" is where this 17th century instrument is introduced to the 21st century avant-garde. Melodic phrases elongate and grow nervously dissonant as oft with post-modern composition. Tobias Hume's A Pavin (1605) illustrates that Knox is acutely cognizant of the similarities of the old and new compositions.

Knox is joined by cellist Agnes Vesterman, who provides continuo and accompaniment, giving the music a more fully realized body readily heard on Attilo Ariosti's Prima Lezione (1720). Delightful in this recital are traditional folksongs titled here as "Celtic Dance/I Once Loved a Lass/Jig." This is music as old as the middle ages whose themes continue to arise when modern composition requires a Celtic air. It is is music as essential as water and ubiquitous as air. It is the stuff of life.

Morton Feldman - Marek Konstantynowicz, Cikada Ensemble, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Christian Eggen
The Viola in My Life, I-IV

Holy cow! What a difference a musical approach makes. The late New York composer Morton Feldman, acolyte of John Cage, took a far different approach to composing for the modern viola. "The Viola in My Life" is a four movement work that evolves from a minimalist's primordial ooze in "Part I" to a sophisticated, slow motion anxiety in "Part IV." What develops in between is best described by Feldman's own performance instructions for "Part II:" "Extremely quiet, all attacks at a minimum, with no feeling of a beat."

That pretty well describes the first three parts. "Part I" couples the viola with a small ensemble consisting of a violin, flute, cello, piano and percussion. "Part II" pairs the viola with the same composition except with the addition of a clarinet and celesta. "Part III" is a duet with piano and "Part IV" frames the viola with full orchestra. The violist is Marek Konstantynowicz, who imparts certain pathos to this difficult score.

"Part I" is characterized by single notes from the viola accented with chords sprinkled from the remaining instruments. "Part II" builds on this approach and adds the ebony sound of the clarinet and tinny childishness of the celesta. "Part II" may be the most traditional of the movements as a piano-viola duet. But Feldman, while employing 3/2 and 2/2 time signatures, still remains enigmatic in his requirements. "Part IV" is postmodern composition in full bloom, distant, dissonant, anxious, and stressed.

Morton Feldman, parallel with trumpeter Miles Davis, knew the value of space in music. Both knew clinically how much time could be mistreated in music before that music slipped from brilliance into mere noise. Feldman is essential 20th century American music.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Garth Knox: Malor me bat; Marin Marais: Les Folies d'Espagne; Roland Moser: Manners of Speaking; Tobias Hume: A Pavin; Attilo Ariosti: Prima Lezione; Klaus Huber; Plainte; Traditional: Celtic Dance/I Once Loved a Lass/ Jig.

Personnel: Garth Knox: viola d'amore; Agnes Vesterman: violoncello.

The Viola in My Life, I-IV

Tracks: The Viola in My Life Parts I - IV.

Personnel: Marek Konstantynowicz: viola; Cikada Ensemble; Norwegian Radio Orchestra; Christian Eggen: conductor.

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