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American Weavings

Audiophile Audition, May 27 2011

Daniel Coombs

Viola is one of my favorite stringed instruments. I happen to love its dark, somewhat subdued timbre and its expressive possibilities. Writing for viola is tricky, though, because it is a color that literally blends into the orchestral palate well but does not project and cut through massive amounts of sound too well. So, when I first discovered this disc I immediately wondered how does the combination of viola with organ sound? The answer is very well when written well! There are two works in this very nice collection by John Weaver, former head of the organ department at the Curtis Institute. Both his “Concert Piece” for viola and organ as well as the “Three Chorale Preludes” were written for the present performers, sisters Carol and Catherine Rodland. “Concert Piece”, in fact, was written in memory of their father, Rev. John R. Rodland. The “Concert Piece” features some strong rhythmic writing that showcases each performer as well as a very exciting toccata-like middle section. Weaver’s “Chorale Preludes” is based on three different church chorale melodies found in the common canon of the Presbyterian Church, among others. The melodies are shared very nicely between the viola and the organ in various permutations and make for a very nice work to listen to in both cases. The piece by Christopher Gable, “Teshuva”, from 2006, is very different and equally fascinating to listen to. “Teshuva” means ‘turning’ or ‘returning’ in Hebrew and is described by the composer as a fantasy, wherein the ‘turning’ is that of an original twelve-tone hymn-like tune being put through a variety of tonal centers, speeds and combinations of color that eventually find their way back to the original. Gable indicates that “teshuva” can also be a very particular atonement ritual in Judaism one must participate in after being away from God from a long time. Gable wrote this very interesting and dramatic work after he and his wife found a church to join after many years of not attending church at all. This, too, capitalizes on some of the very plaintive timbres that the viola is capable of. The other work for viola and organ on this program is the extensive “Sonata da Chiesa” by Daniel Pinkham. Pinkham was for over sixty years one of America’s best known composers in all genres, being especially well known in New England. The “Sonata da Chiesa” is patterned after the 17th century ‘church sonata’ form of its title featuring several short movements of varying tempi and moods. This is a very fine piece and the second movement, ‘andantino’, is particularly impressive with its echoing timbres in the high voice on the organ and the muted viola part contributing to what is essentially a baroque trio sonata format. Pinkham wrote a lot of music for the organ and this work illustrates his knowledge of its capabilities. In fact, the short “Proclamation” for solo organ, also of Pinkham’s is a charming and virtuosic work which also illustrates Pinkham as a composer who truly understands the organ. The other solo organ work on this disc is the “Toccata on ‘Hyfrydol’ “ by the California based, Oklahoma native, Craig Phillips. “Hyfrydol” apparently means ‘cheerful’ and the “Hyfrydol” in use was a children’s hymn, by Rowland Huw Prichard, dating from 1844. Phillips treats the original hymn tune as the elements in an expanded toccata form, using ostinati and all registers of the organ in a brief but ‘hyfrydol’ display. One of the bonuses in this collection is the inclusion of the two brief wonderful works for solo viola by Augusta Read Thomas. I am very familiar with much of her work and she is a talented composer with a unique voice. “Incantation” is a very plaintive sounding work, intended to depict the “generosity of spirit” of the violist Cathryn Tait, for whom it was written. Tait was already dying of cancer when this work was written and was premiered at a festival in Boston, for which Carol Rodland was the artistic co-director. Augusta’s “Pulsar” was originally written for violin and later rescored for viola; specifically for Carol Rodland. “Pulsar” is characterized by long melodic lines interspersed with short urgent bursts. Much of Read Thomas’ music is fully and precisely notated but sounds very spontaneous, almost like it is being improvised. Like most of her music there is a beauty but also some obvious technical prowess that the performer must master. The performances in this collection are all wonderful to listen to. Carol and Catherine Rodland are both sensitive masters of their instrument and a passion for these pieces shows in these performances. I certainly had no idea that there were pieces for viola and organ out there but it is clear why there are. The timbres and the expressive possibilities are obvious and excellent compositions in the hands of excellent performers will also be a joy to listen to. Congratulation to Crystal Records for its decades-long commitment to bringing lesser known performers and lesser known repertoire to our immediate availability and their engineering of usual high standards. I believe violists, organists and fans of any good quality chamber music will enjoy this a great deal!